DAMASCUS // A national dialogue conference that opened in Syria yesterday, with officials saying the country was now on a path to democracy, immediately suffered a serious blow to its credibility as dissidents boycotted the regime-orchestrated meeting.
Vice-president Farouk Al Shara, opening the conference, acknowledged it was taking place in an atmosphere of "uncertainty and distrust, of rejection and worry".
However, he called it a historic event, saying he hoped it marked a step towards fundamentally transforming Syria's autocratic, single-party system of governance.
"We are going to hold a comprehensive national dialogue during which we will announce Syria's transition towards a multi-party democratic state, in which everyone will be equal and able to participate in the building of the nation's future," Mr Al Shara said, in a speech to about 200 delegates, who were overwhelmingly from pro-regime organisations.
No major opposition figures or dissidents were in attendance, with the opposition refusing formal talks with officials as long as a deadly security crackdown continues and thousands of protesters remain jailed.
Security forces have killed more than 1,400 civilians since the March uprising began, according to human rights groups, with more than 15 fatally shot on Friday.
About 10,000 demonstrators and suspected dissidents are in custody, with widespread reports of serious abuse of detainees.
Abdul Karim Rehawe, a leading civil-rights activist in Damascus, who had joined the boycott, said: "Even as this meeting is taking place, security services are carrying out raids and arresting more protesters.
"Dialogue means the authorities have to talk to the protesters and that simply isn't happening," he said. "There is no dialogue taking place, and any suggestion that it is, is just an illusion. The authorities are saying one thing but doing another."
Much of the two-day long conference's opening session was shown live on state television, including the delivery of highly critical remarks by the few independent figures present, who are considered close to the opposition.
Tayyeb Tizini, a dissident writer, told delegates: "The bullets are still being fired in Homs and Hama. I would have hoped that that would have stopped before the meeting. That's what's necessary," referring to on-going security service operations in two major Syrian cities.
Mr Tizini called for "dismantling of the police state" and for thousands of prisoners of conscience to be freed immediately.
The delegates came mostly from Baath party and government-controlled trade unions and syndicates. Some non-affiliated figures were present, including journalists, actors and intellectuals.
An independent political analyst said: "Basically it is a hollow meeting, even if the authorities wanted opposition figures to take part, they haven't. Most of the people sitting around the table are the usual suspects or tame critics.
"The most we can say is that state television is now using the word 'opposition' something it has never done before."
Officially, the conference was billed as a "consultative meeting" to draw-up more detailed plans for a "comprehensive national dialogue". In effect it is a prelude to further government-organised talks, which are not expected to begin until later this month, at the earliest.
That fuelled accusations from opposition activists that the authorities are merely playing for time, rather than engaged in a serious reform process.
Constitutional change, such as ending Baath party rule of the country, could be carried out overnight by presidential decree, they say, without the need for months of committees, discussion panels and workshops.
"It's clear the regime is trying to buy time," the dissident said.
"It is talking about talks while carrying out a security solution, it still believes it will have crushed the protesters before it is forced to make any serious political reforms."
In his remarks to the conference, Mr Al Shara offered assurances that the authorities sincerely believe reform is the only way out of the current crisis, which has seen hundreds of thousands of protesters calling for the overthrow of President Bashar Al Assad.
He continues to retain a strong base of support and has repeatedly promised he will oversee political reforms.
"Our society will not be able to achieve freedom and civil peace without a democratic, pluralistic political system," Mr Al Shara said, referring to the process of national dialogue as "irreversible".
He also admitted that widely criticised concessions, including the lifting of martial law, had not been delivered.
"Circumstances have prevented the full implementation of several laws promulgated recently, including ending the state of emergency," he said.
In addition, promises were given that exiled dissidents would be allowed to return to Syria in order to take part in future talks. It is an assurance that activists place little faith in, believing security units will simply arrest opposition figures at the border if they try to reenter.
"This conference is designed for an overseas audience," one dissident said. "The regime is trying to show the world, especially Turkey and Russia, that it is reforming but until this moment nothing at all has changed."
Mr Al Assad appointed a new governor for Hama yesterday, naming Anas Abdul-Razzaq Na'em as the replacement for Ahmad Khaled Abdel Aziz, who was sacked after allowing mass demonstrations to take place in the city. Protesters had called for Mr Aziz to be reinstated.
Syria's foreign ministry also announced it had called in the French and US ambassadors for a dressing-down, after both visited Hama on Thursday and Friday to speak with residents and protesters, without permission from the authorities.