Landmark meeting on the road to change in Damascus

Critics of Syria's authoritarian regime have called for a peaceful transition to democracy and an end to the Assad family's 40-year-old monopoly on power at an unprecedented open gathering in Damascus.

Almost 200 opposition figures and intellectuals gathered yesterday to produce "a vision about how to end tyranny," said an organiser.

While unprecedented in its size, the public meeting at a Damascus hotel - the first since the uprising against president Bashar al-Assad's rule began in March - had the government's approval, 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.

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The gathering came as the regime feels the pressure of a relentless protest movement, with authorities anxious to show they were making concessions.

Meanwhile, Syria's state-run news agency reported a national political dialogue planned by Mr Assad would begin on 10 July, and "all factions, intellectual personalities, politicians" would be invited. It said the agenda will include constitutional amendments, including one to open the way to political parties other than the ruling Baath Party.

In an opening speech to the conference, Louay Hussein, a prominent writer and one of the organisers, said: "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."

He added that the current regime should "perish".

Michel Kilo, one of Syria's best-known writers and pro-democracy activists, called on the regime to build trust with the opposition by allowing secular, non-violent opposition parties to exist and by amending an article in the constitution that designates the Baath Party as "the leader of the state and society".

The only salvation is through a peaceful political transformation, scholar Munther Khaddam said at the conference. Otherwise, he said, "the alternative to that is the unknown, and the destruction of (Syrian] 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.Opposition figure Walid al-Bunni said: "This meeting will be exploited as a cover-up for the arrests, brutal killings and torture that is taking place on daily basis." He said he was not invited as authorities had "vetoed" some names.

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.

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The divisions highlighted the fractured nature of Syria's opposition, which has long been silenced, imprisoned or exiled.

The state-run news agency, SANA, said that Mr Assad met yesterday with US Representative Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who wants Washington to follow a non-interventionist foreign policy.

The agency said Mr Assad told Mr Kucinich 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".