DAMASCUS // Lines of communication may slowly be opening between Syrian authorities and their reformist critics, but hopes for meaningful national discussion of the country's current crisis are fading, dissident leaders say.
In defiance of an ongoing security crackdown, anti-government protests are expected again today despite an interior ministry ban on all demonstrations and the deployment of military forces in at least six Syrian provinces to stamp out dissent.
Louay Hussein, a civil rights campaigner who has been approached by the authorities as part of their "national dialogue" initiative, said today would be a "key test" of officials' claims they now want to find a political, not military, solution to a crisis that has now lasted two months.
"They have two choices: continue a hard crackdown or begin serious political reforms," he said in an interview on Wednesday. "They have a matter of days, not weeks, to make that decision and show they are serious."
Mr Hussein was one of a small number of activists contacted a fortnight ago by Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashar al Assad, in order to open talks with opposition representatives.
He described the 90-minute discussion, which took place on May 7, as "positive" and conducted in "the right atmosphere". He stressed, however, that it was a conversation and did not amount to opening a "national dialogue".
"From that meeting, they said they do want to move from a security solution to political solution, and I felt they were serious about that," Mr Hussein said. "But just how serious [they are] can only be measured by the steps they take to put that into practice on the ground. We need to see something on that soon."
Mr Hussein outlined a series of measures the authorities had to quickly take in order to prove their sincerity, including allowing demonstrations and sit-ins to take place, replacing armed plainclothes security forces with uniformed police and giving independent media access to trouble spots.
So far, none of those steps have been implemented. According to anti-government campaigners and human rights monitors, the security services have this week continued a devastating military offensive involving tanks in the border town of Talkalakh, with dozens of civilians killed and wounded. There were reports from residents that troops had begun to pull back yesterday.
The US and Europe appear to have already concluded that the Syrian authorities have no plans to make meaningful reforms. Washington announced escalated economic sanctions on Wednesday which directly target Mr al Assad.
Brussels is widely expected to follow suit next week, having originally excluded the Syrian leader from an economic blockade aimed at central members of ruling elite.
Despite growing criticism from the US, EU and, crucially, Turkey, a key Syrian ally, Damascus retains the support of Russia, China and India. Some Arab states have made limited criticisms of the way Damascus has handled the unprecedented outbreak of public dissent.
Syrian officials say they have now passed the height of the crisis while insisting they are faced by a foreign-backed Islamic militant revolt. They have said a process of national dialogue is now under way to address the legitimate demands of protesters.
A number of dissidents said behind-the-scenes discussions with officials had been going on since soon after the first public demonstrations erupted in the southern city of Deraa, which was the crucible of anti-government sentiment until a powerful military force was sent in to crush the rebellion late last month.
Those early talks were described by some of the dissidents involved as very frank, with no subject off limits. But they also cautioned that there was little indication the comments they made to their interlocutors would be acted upon.
One government critic said senior members of the ruling Baath party had asked him to explain what it was protesters wanted, and what he thought the authorities should do about it.
By his account, the source described to them a need to ultimately transfer political power, usher in a multiparty system of governance, separate the institutions of state from narrow interest groups and create a military that was loyal to the nation rather than any particular political faction.
"These are all alien concepts to them," he said. "They cannot understand that there is such a thing as a problem which can only be solved by sharing their power, they cannot imagine that one day they will not automatically have a privileged position."
At the same time, however, he said it was a positive step that members of the ruling elite were now considering issues that would have been unthinkable at the start of the year and that political discussion was no longer confined to interrogations in secret police stations.
"There are attempts to reform but these [authorities] need guarantees about their futures and they don't really know how to go about any of this," he said. "But for the first time in decades, there is now the mentality that the rulers will have to win public support, certainly ahead of the next presidential election in 2014."
With the majority of Syrians not actively involved in anti-government demonstrations, the country's leadership appears to be confident it has a sufficient window of time in which to make the proposed changes.
Many of those supporting protests remain adamant that Syria's system of autocratic government, in place since the 1960s, cannot be reformed and that mention of national dialogue and change is a propaganda ploy.
"The authorities want the people to kneel and think the solution to this is to beat the protesters down and punish those involved," one political dissident said. "The time for talks and mediation is passed. How can they mediate with the people of Deraa now? It's impossible."
Some 800 civilians have been killed since protests by security forces since protests began in March, according to human rights groups.
The Syrian government says the number is closer to 70, and has blamed "armed groups" for the deaths. It also says 120 soldiers and police officers have been killed in the line of duty during the uprising.