Damascus //In a sign that dissent is growing within elite Syrian circles, 41 former government ministers and former senior Baath party officials have called for the regime to stop violence against demonstrators and urgently implement sweeping political reforms.
The group of well-connected public figures, led by Mohammad Suleman, a former minister of information, condemned the authorities' handling of a five-month-old national uprising and urged a change of course, saying the current policy of violent suppression had put Syria on the road to "catastrophe" and would result either in civil war or foreign intervention.
"Continuation of the security solution is not a choice and use of the armed forces, arresting thousands of people, is not acceptable, it puts a stick in the wheel of political change," they said. "Military operations block the democratic opening."
Their warning echoed a growing chorus of condemnation from the international community, with Arab states, including regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia this week ending its silence over Syria's crackdown on demonstrators. The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, held six hours of talks in Damascus yesterday including a two-hour, face-to-face meeting with the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.
Even as those discussions were under way, at least 30 people were killed in military assaults, according to activists.
Army units backed by tanks pushed further into the eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor and entered the town of Binnish close to the Turkish border.
Criticism of the regime from inside the country escalated on Monday, in the wealthy Mezzeh Villas neighbourhood of Damascus, when the former officials launched a Democratic National Initiative, detailing a transitional programme to establish a full parliamentary democracy within a year.
Their plan called for the formation of an interim government, including representatives of the regime and protesters, which would oversee the drafting of a new democratic constitution, new election laws and new political parties laws.
As an immediate trust-building measure, the group said all political prisoners should be released, provocation by state-run media halted, compensation paid to the families of all those killed and a serious investigation carried out into all of the uprisings deaths, with those responsible punished.
A two-page document outlining the plan pointedly failed to endorse the regime's claim to be pursuing a "comprehensive reform agenda" and rejected its "national dialogue" effort because it failed to include the opposition.
The initiative also refused to back the authorities' insistence they are fighting a widespread, well-organised Islamic insurgency. In spoken comments, Mr Suleman instead characterised the protesters as "peaceful opposition".
Syria's rapidly swelling number of international critics have similarly dismissed regime assurances that reforms are under way and claims that protests have been anything other than an overwhelmingly peaceful demand for increased political rights.
"There are some armed groups that are exploiting the situation but the opposition began peacefully and protesters are still calling for peaceful opposition," Mr Suleman told reporters on Monday.
He said the regime and their opponents were responsible for the crisis but stressed that the onus was on the authorities, as the more powerful side, to take the decisions that would avert a national disaster.
"You cannot solve this crisis by cancelling one site or the other; we have a double crisis of the regime and of the opposition," he said.
That persons from such strongly pro-regime backgrounds went public in their dissatisfaction was seen as significant by Syrian political analysts, who said the group would have lobbied extensively behind the scenes to make the regime's policies more moderate. Their decision to openly voice their dissent showed those efforts to work discreetly inside the system had failed, the analysts said.
Although none of the initiatives' signatories are members of president Al Assad's close-knit inner circle - and none are Baath party members - they come from the top strata of Syrian society that has benefited most from 40 years of the Al Assad dynasty, first under President Hafez Al Assad then his son and heir, Bashar.
Mr Suleman is renowned as something of a hardliner and hails from the same minority Alawite community as Mr Al Assad, with personal connections to the Assad family. He also has direct family ties to senior intelligence figures.
Others backing the transitional plan include Mahmoud Jeyoush, Ameen Abu Shamat, Wafiq Arnous and Marwan Habbash, all either former government ministers or high ranking Baathist officials.
"To see regime figures talking like this shows its support base is weakening even at a high level, the regime is getting smaller and smaller," said one independent analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The crisis is getting closer to the president, each week the fire burns nearer to the palace gates."
There was no immediate reaction to the initiative from the authorities. Opposition activists rejected the plan, pointing to the group's continued links to the regime and its proposal that Mr Al Assad personally oversee the transition to democracy at the head of its suggested interim government - although the programme did not stipulate that the president retain his post after leadership elections, due to take place in 2014.
"Whatever deal these well-connected people can make with the regime isn't relevant anymore, they are symbols of the regime and they do not have connections to the street protesters," said one pro-democracy campaigner, on condition of anonymity.
"They want President Assad to oversee the transition but the streets have started calling for his head, there is no compromise to be had between those two positions."
In their manifesto, the former regime officials said the autocratic system of government had been appropriate during the Cold War but that now a "democratic civil nation state" must be built, with a multi-party system guaranteeing media and cultural freedoms.
Mr Suleman said Syria's "political leadership" had failed to create a fair society.
"We are seeing the farmers living around rural Damascus demonstrating against the Baath party, these are the very people who made the party and who once supported it," he said. "The leaders of the Baath party do not deserve their positions."
The group rejected foreign intervention of all kinds, insisting that change must be brought about by Syrians, not under international pressure. It also stressed that any future Syrian government must continue its struggle to regain the occupied Golan Heights from Israel.
Since the March uprising began, more than 2,000 civilians have been killed by security forces, according to human rights groups, with more than 10 thousand arrested for protesting. The Syrian authorities say more than 500 security personnel have been killed in the same period but have not provided figures for civilian casualties.
There is little indication that a deepening spiral of bloodshed and demonstrations will be broken soon, with the authorities renewing deadly military assaults on protest hotspots since the start of Ramadan and anti-regime rallies continuing. Areas hit in previous military operations have shown the uprising is resilient, with protests resuming as soon as army units are withdrawn.
Various efforts to plot a political course out of the crisis have come to nothing, with Mr Al Assad's officials insisting that appropriate reforms are under way and that, as a result, there is no need for anyone to protest. Those taking to the streets are considered rioters or foreign-backed saboteurs intent on destabilising the country, the authorities say.