Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- Syria's embattled government allowed about 200 activists and intellectuals, including some it had previously jailed, to hold a conference on democratic reform Monday at a Damascus hotel.
"We must change this tyrannical regime to a democratic, civilian one," Louay Hussein, a writer and one-time political prisoner, said. "How that transition happens is a question this conference is trying to address."
Hussein said the conference would "not necessarily" find an answer to that question, "But that is the big question in this country now."
About 200 Syrian dissidents gathered in the hotel ballroom, including several signatories of a 2005 declaration that called for a democratic transition. But some of those who have been risking arrest or bodily harm as President Bashar al-Assad tries to suppress a wave of anti-government protests say the people in the hotel don't necessarily speak for them.
"The big question regarding this conference is, where are the young people?" asked Wissam Tarif, a pro-democracy activist based outside Syria. "Where are the people who are on the streets? Where are the voices of the people who are from Daraa, or from Douma, or from Jisr al-Shugur, or from Idlib? I think those are the voices that have been missed so far."
Tarif is executive director of the Spain-based human rights group Insan, which says more than 630 people have been killed and 8,000 jailed in the clampdown. Other human rights activists have put the death toll at more than 1,100.
For its part, a Syrian military spokesman said Sunday that more than 400 police officers and government troops and police have been killed battling "armed gangs." CNN cannot independently verify either claim.
But Maan Abdul Salam, one of the activists who gathered in Damascus, said, "I think it's time for us to say our political statement.
"There is the statement coming from the street, there is the statement coming from the authorities and there is the statement coming from everywhere outside the country," he said. "It's time for this group to say what they think and find solutions."
And Hussein said the street protests are needed to "put pressure on the state to stop its dominance over society." If that doesn't happen, he said, "Then we are definitely at risk of going back to jail -- and for a very long time."
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday's conference was "a worthwhile step," but told reporters that "the violence has to stop."
"For it to be truly significant, it has to be part of a cessation of violence against the Syrian people. It has to be part of an embrace of the idea that they need to have a national dialogue about their future, and that that transition needs to take place with the regime leading it or getting out of the way."
The al-Assad family has ruled Syria since 1971, with Bashar al-Assad taking power after his father's death in 2000. He held out a promise of reforms and a "national dialogue" in a speech last week that was met with widespread skepticism.
Hussein said he expected the government to try to exploit Monday's conference and hold out those who attended as "the reasonable ones." But he added, "We will always try to defend the street, because it is also a reasonable, right and peaceful street that always protests peacefully."
CNN's Hala Gorani and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.