4:23pm

Mon September 19, 2011
Middle East

With Police Lurking, Dissidents Meet In Syria

It was an unprecedented gathering in Syria: The security police were monitoring, but they did not break up, a six-hour meeting of more than 300 dissidents at a farmhouse outside the capital Damascus.

Syria's traditional dissidents, men and women who have spent years in jail, have met before. For the first time, they sat together Sunday with young street organizers of the current unrest.

Samir Aita, an opposition figure who lives in Paris, attended the gathering and talked about the significance when he reached Beirut.

"It was important to say in Damascus, 'Let's topple the regime,' not in Paris or in Washington or in Berlin or anywhere else," says Aita, who is the editor-in-chief of the Arabic version of the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatic. "It was important that the old politicians and the young guys talked not only about toppling the regime, but what is at the end of the tunnel. This was exciting, thrilling."

The government opponents are calling themselves the National Coordination Council. They said they did not want foreign intervention or violence in their protests. This message comes at a time when some young activists say it's time to take up arms against a government crackdown that has led to the loss of nearly 3,000 lives over the past six months.

Police Threaten To Intervene

At one point, the security forces tried to enter. But Aita said that the older dissidents — the "known guys" — went to the door and told the security police they could not enter. After that, they remained outside, and did not make any arrests after the meeting was finished.

The conference also acknowledged Syria's so-called silent majority, those who have remained on the sidelines of the protest.

"Everyone is saying that the merchants in Damascus are not with the uprising," Aita says. "My impression was that they want to get the regime out. They want to get the family out. They are afraid of what will happen next. They want it to be peaceful. They don't want it to be like Iraq or Libya."

This meeting, and another two days earlier in Turkey, were aimed at knitting together Syria's dissidents, who are a mixed bag of secularist, leftist and Islamist figures.

But after 40 years of rule by the Assad family and the Baath Party, dissidents have no experience in forming political parties or other organizations, says Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar and a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

"The Assad regime's use of pressure tactics, and divide-and-conquer strategies, has also had an impact," says Nasr, adding that it may take time to find agreement among these opposition groups. "Generally, opposition politics is always messy, unless there is a charismatic figure to rally the opposition together."

No Dominant Opposition Figure

No leader has emerged from the Syrian uprising, and young activists say that's the way they want it, for now. Kareem Lailah, who edits a newspaper that documents the uprising, says the dissidents in Turkey and the insiders in Damascus have to learn to work together.

"Let's see how they collaborate," says Lailah, who is based in Europe. "The collaboration is very important. The leadership is not the issue now."

For the demonstrators, the issue is how to maintain the momentum. A recent arrest sweep has targeted organizers as the government raises the price of peaceful protest.

Aita, who met some young activists for the first time, urged them to protest at different times and places. He said they shouldn't be predictable and protest every Friday after the midday prayers, when the security forces are waiting.

"It's important to go and say, be pacific. I made a speech saying, 'Be smart,' " he says. "The power system is playing smart games. You don't need to go there when security is waiting for you."

Protests on Fridays are already smaller than a few months ago. The stream of protest videos has slowed. Protest organizers, who want to topple the regime, are already adopting new strategies, especially in the capital where security is particularly tight.

A few weeks ago, anti-government organizers launched a new tactic; releasing tens of thousands of ping-pong balls across Damascus painted with the slogan, "Bashar must go."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host: For six months, protesters in Syria have been calling for the downfall of the Syrian government. This weekend in Damascus, more than 300 dissidents echoed that call. They came together to unify a fractious opposition. The meeting came two days after a similar gathering in Turkey. Both groups say they aim to support the demonstrations. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.

DEBORAH AMOS: The meeting at a farmhouse outside Damascus was unprecedented. Syria's traditional dissidents, men and women who've spent years in jail, have met before, but for the first time, they sat together with young street organizers of the current unrest. Security police monitored the six-hour meeting but didn't intervene, and there were no arrests. Dr. Samir Aita, an opposition figure living outside Syria, attended the gathering and talked about the significance when he got to Beirut.

Dr. SAMIR AITA: It was important to say in Damascus: Let's topple the regime, not in Paris or in Washington or in Berlin or anywhere else. This was a moment - exciting, thrilling.

AMOS: Participants said no to foreign intervention and no to violence, a signal to blunt the growing sentiment on the street. Some activists say it's time to take up arms against a brutal government crackdown that's cost close to 3,000 lives. The conference also acknowledged Syria's so-called silent majority, says Aita, Syrians in the largest cities who've remained on the sidelines of the protest.

AITA: They tell us, even silently, topple the regime, please. We want to get rid of it. So they need to be hailed, even if they say this not very loudly.

AMOS: This meeting and one two days earlier in Turkey were aimed at knitting together Syria's dissidents, a mixed bag of secularists, leftists and Islamists. Past attempts have ended in failure and frustration for street protesters who want a united opposition to back their movement. But after 40 years of rule by one family and one party, Syrian dissidents have no experience in forming parties or even nongovernment organizations, says analyst Vali Nasr.

VALI NASR: The Assad regime use of pressure tactics and divide-and-conquer strategies has also had an impact.

AMOS: And it may take time to find agreement among these groups, says Nasr.

NASR: Generally, opposition politics is always messy, unless there is a charismatic figure that would rally the opposition together.

AMOS: No leader has emerged from the Syrian uprising, and young activists say that's the way they want it for now. Kareem Lailah, who edits a newspaper that documents the uprising, says the dissidents in Turkey and the insiders in Damascus have to learn to work together first.

KAREEM LAILAH: And let's see how they collaborate. The collaboration is very important. The leadership is not really the main issue now.

AMOS: For demonstrators, the issue is how to maintain momentum. A recent sweep of arrests has targeted organizers as the government raises the price of peaceful protest. Aita, who returned to Damascus for the gathering and met some of the young activists for the first time, urged them to abandon the weekly Friday protests at noon when the security forces are waiting.

AITA: Show your will and show that your will has been bigger and will continue to be bigger. Make smart demonstrations, OK? Save your lives.

AMOS: Friday protests are already smaller than a few months ago. The stream of protest videos has slowed. Organizers who want to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are already adopting new strategies, especially in the capital where security is particularly tight. A few weeks ago, anti-government organizers launched a new tactic: releasing tens of thousands of pong balls across Damascus painted with the slogan: Bashar must go. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.