DAMASCUS // Syrian dissidents meeting in Damascus yesterday pledged to press ahead with a "peaceful uprising for freedom" until the creation of a "democratic state".
The authorities, meanwhile, invited the opposition to a meeting on July 10 to discuss key changes to the constitution amid the wave of unrest that has pitted pro-democracy protesters against security forces since mid-March.
"There are two ways forward, the first a clear and non-negotiable move to a peaceful transition to democracy which would rescue our country and our people," the opposition activist Munzer Khaddam told the meeting. "The alternative is a road that leads into the unknown and which will destroy everyone," he said.
The opposition figures, all independent of any party affiliation, had gathered in a Damascus hotel to discuss a way out of crisis in a public meeting they called unprecedented in five decades of iron-fisted Baath party rule.
The meeting took place with the approval of the president, Bashar Al Assad, leading to criticism that the regime was trying to take on a veneer of openness while continuing its bloody crackdown on dissent. Many regime opponents stayed away for that reason.
Nevertheless, the dissident gathering, at which the government was not represented, would have been unthinkable a few months ago in tightly controlled Syria. It came as the regime was reeling under the pressure of a relentless protest movement, and authorities were clearly anxious to show they were making concessions.
The national political dialogue planned by Mr Al Assad would begin on July 10, and "all factions, intellectual personalities, politicians" would be invited, according to the state-run news agency. As Mr Al Assad had said in a speech on June 20, the agenda will include constitutional amendments, including one to open the way to political parties other than the ruling Baath Party, the agency said.
The dissidents' meeting began with the Syrian national anthem, followed by a minute's silence in honour of the hundreds of Syrians who have been killed in the suppression of protests that began in March.
Louay Hussein, a prominent writer and one of the organisers, said in an opening speech: "We are meeting today to put forward a vision about how to end tyranny and ensure a peaceful and secure transition to the hoped-for state: the state of freedom, democracy and equality." The current regime should perish, he said.
Michel Kilo, one of Syria's best-known writers and pro-democracy activists, called on the regime to immediately build trust with the opposition by allowing secular, nonviolent opposition parties to exist and by amending an article in the consitution that designates Mr Al Assad's Baath party as "the leader of the state and society".
The only salvation is through a peaceful political transformation, Mr Khaddam said at yesterday's conference. Otherwise, he said, "the alternative to that is the unknown, and the destruction of society".
But some opposition figures and activists, both inside Syria and abroad, dismissed the meeting of 190 critics as an opportunity for the government to convey a false impression that it is allowing space for dissent, rather than cracking down.
The opposition says about 1,400 people have been killed, most of them unarmed protesters, during the government crackdown on three months of street protests.
The opposition figure Walid Al Bunni said: "This meeting will be exploited as a cover-up for the arrests, brutal killings and torture that are taking place on daily basis." He said he was not invited to the conference because authorities had "vetoed" some names.
An activists' group, the Co-ordination Union of the Syrian Revolt, also denounced the conference, calling it a "cheap ploy" that the government wants to exploit.
The divisions highlighted the fractured nature of the Syrian opposition, which has long been silenced, imprisoned or exiled by the autocratic regime in Damascus. Opposition meetings so far have been held abroad by exiles living in the West or elsewhere in the Middle East and who don't have significant followings inside the country.
Those inside Syria say change must come from within, but the split over yesterday's conference reflected tactical differences over approaches.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the crossfire of accusations within the opposition should end.
"Today's meeting in Damascus is a consultative one. It is not a meeting with the Syrian regime," he said. "The aim is to find a way to make the transition to democracy, to stop the slide toward civil war."
As the meeting began, about 50 people gathered outside the city-centre hotel where it was held, shouting pro-Assad slogans.
Whether the meeting might produce partners for Mr Al Assad's proposed "national dialogue" remains to be seen.
The European Union and the US, condemning the bloody crackdown, have imposed economic sanctions on Mr Al Assad and other members of the Damascus leadership.
The state-run news agency, Sana, said yesterday that Mr Al Assad had met the US Democrat congressman Dennis Kucinich. The agency said Mr Al Assad told him it was important to distinguish between people's legitimate demands and "armed groups that are exploiting these demands to sow chaos and destabilise the country".
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse