Syrian reform conference eclipsed by showdown with America

(STR/ AP ) - The damaged front side of the U.S. embassy is seen after pro-government protesters attacked the embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, Monday, July 11, 2011. The damage caused when a mob breached the wall of the compound before being dispersed by Marine guards.

(STR/ AP ) - The damaged front side of the U.S. embassy is seen after pro-government protesters attacked the embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, Monday, July 11, 2011. The damage caused when a mob breached the wall of the compound before being dispersed by Marine guards.

DIMAS, Syria — The gathering of establishment figures and some moderate opposition activists at a hotel in this hilly resort town west of Damascus was billed as a “national dialogue” that would debate issues unthinkable in repressive Syria as recently as a few months ago, such as press freedoms, a new election law and ways to end nearly half a century of Baath Party rule.

On Tuesday, the participants issued a final statement, though one falling far short of the demands of those fueling the protest movement across Syria for the outright toppling of the regime. Nonetheless, the statement went further than any officially sanctioned document had before in calling for reforms, including the complete revision of the constitution, along with the repeal of the dreaded Article 8 that guarantees Baath Party dominance in the country’s political system.

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Syrian government supporters smashed windows at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, raised a Syrian flag and scrawled graffiti calling the American ambassador a \

Syrian government supporters smashed windows at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, raised a Syrian flag and scrawled graffiti calling the American ambassador a "dog" in anger over the envoy's visit to an opposition stronghold, witnesses said. (July 11)

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But as with so many gestures from the Syrian government since nationwide anti-government demonstrations erupted in March, this one may have come too late to have any significant impact on the ongoing drama unfolding on the streets of the country’s towns and cities and now, increasingly, on the international stage.

The day before, as delegates were arguing over the final wording of the statement, angry pro-government demonstrators attacked and vandalized the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton responded by uttering the words many members of the opposition had been hoping to hear for months, telling reporters that President Bashar al-Assad had “lost legitimacy,” a phrase used to signal the withdrawal of U.S. support for Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in the dying days of his rule.

Syria responded with a stern warning to the United States on Tuesday to refrain from acts of “provocation.” And as the Dimas conference closed, instead of plaudits for this first, hesitant step toward reform, Syria found itself confronting an escalating showdown with the world’s superpower.

“It is ironic,” said Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad and one of the chief architects of the conference. “What we are trying to do in Syria is have a peaceful transition to democracy, and what we expect from America as the largest democracy in the world is to support us.”

She rejected U.S. allegations that the government had incited the embassy demonstrations and that security forces had stood by while the crowds hurled rocks and swarmed the U.S. Embassy’s gates. Eight demonstrators were arrested and two policemen injured, she said, evidence that the government was doing its best to rein in the fray. “There is no way we would condone such a thing,” she said.

Whether the conference was ever likely to make a significant difference to the crisis in Syria is in doubt, however. The opposition boycotted, and such is the gulf of mistrust between the government and those who have braved the threat of detention and death to seek its downfall that almost nothing now would persuade protesters to go home, said Amr al-Azm, a professor in Ohio who is active in the Syrian opposition.

As far as the protesters are concerned, “any change that the regime contemplates, considers and talks about has one purpose only, which is to save itself,” he said. “So, if your goal is to bring down the regime, anything the regime does is not going to be acceptable, because it’s not going to sign its own death warrant.”

Yet participants and opponents alike hailed the gathering as evidence that at least some members of the Syrian government are finally acknowledging that the country has been forever transformed by the four-month-old protest movement and that there is no going back to the pre-March days of unchallenged Assad family rule.

Among those attending was Marcell Shehwaro, 27, a blogger who said she wholeheartedly supports the street protests and drew ire from her friends when she accepted the government’s invitation to participate. She did so, she said, because she wants to explore the possibility that change can be brought about through dialogue, not confrontation, and in the hope of averting further bloodshed.

“This dialogue is only happening because of the people on the streets who are being arrested and killed for freedom, and we owe this to them,” she said.

But, she said, she was disappointed by the tone and outcome of the conference because the final statement set no timetable for reform and failed to acknowledge either the legitimacy of the protests or the seriousness of the crisis.

“The people on the streets represent the Syrians more than all the people in the conference,” she said. “These were old-guard people. Our young people from the streets should be here.”

Imad Fawzi Shuebi, a professor of political science at Damascus University who was among the older attendees, took a different view. “Crisis? What crisis?” he asked. “It’s a dilemma, and now the wheels of the train are on track to democracy.”

“I can say without hesitation that the majority want Mr. President [Assad] to stay,” he added. “And if you want to be democratic, you ought to respect the decision of the majority.”

 
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