July 18, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 709

Intellectuals and Oppositionists Conference in Damascus – Pro-Opposition or Pro-Regime?

July 18, 2011 | By N. Mozes
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 709


On June 27, approximately 200 Syrian intellectuals and independent oppositionists convened at the Samiramis Hotel in central Damascus to discuss the crisis in the country. They called to transform the Syrian regime, but not to topple it. It seems that their stance represents, on the one hand, an assumption that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will not follow in the footsteps of the former Egyptian and Tunisian presidents by stepping down without further bloodshed, but, on the other hand, fear of the anarchy that may ensue if the Assad regime is toppled. The importance of this conference was not just in its content, but also in its location and timing, since this was the first time in many years that such a conference took place within Syria, with the knowledge and unofficial approval of the regime; moreover, it was held at the height of the protests, which challenge the regime's legitimacy domestically and abroad.

The conference participants incurred harsh criticism from oppositionists inside and outside of Syria, with claims that it serves the interests of the regime while stabbing the protestors in the back. Despite this, we estimate that this conference can be viewed as an authentic opposition conference, similar to those held in Antalya, Turkey, on June 2, 2011, and in Brussels, Belgium, on June 4-5.

In fact, this was the first in a series of conferences held in Damascus in an attempt to resolve the crisis. Apparently, this series of conferences reflects an attempt by the Syrian regime to create the impression that it is willing to accept oppositionist criticism. On July 3, a "National Initiative for Syria" conference was held. Its initiator, Syrian MP Muhammad Habbash, who previously defended the Syrian regime, said that the purpose of the conference was to find "a third path" between the regime and opposition, while emphasizing that the process of change in Syria cannot take place without President Assad.[1] Habbash added that independent oppositionists such as Michel Kilo and 'Aref Dalila had been invited to the conference, but declined to attend.

On July 5, a consultative meeting was held under the title "Independent Parliamentarians for Syria," attended by approximately 70 current and former parliamentarians, in order to "discuss the issues of the national dialogue and the reform plan."[2] Muhammad Habbash attended this conference as well. Neither conference yielded closing statements.

Despite the absence of blatant opposition elements from the conferences, arguments erupted over solutions to the crisis, and criticism was leveled at the regime's conduct. Participants at the "National Initiative for Syria" conference even came to blows after one of them called to overthrow the regime, and was assaulted by others.[3] On the whole, it seems that most participants at both conferences were regime supporters who believe that the regime intends to enact substantial reforms.

On July 10-11, the Syrian regime held another "Consultation Conference" in preparation for national dialogue, attended by approximately 200 politicians and intellectuals and headed by Vice President Farouk Al-Shar'. The opposition boycotted this conference as well, claiming that there is no point in dialogue with the regime, which continues to violently suppress protests. Disagreements and arguments at the conference revolved mainly around the annulment of article 8 of the constitution, which grants the Ba'ath party a monopoly over leadership in Syria, and the withdrawal of military and security forces from population centers. Disagreements also erupted over the closing statement drafted by the conference's organizing committee, which some claimed did not reflect the severity of the crisis in the country. One day later, an amended closing statement was issued, which emphasized that dialogue is the only way to resolve the crisis, thus implicitly calling to end popular protests against the regime. The conference called to release political prisoners and protest detainees as long as they had not broken the law, and also to establish a committee to examine the drafting of a new Syrian constitution.[4]

Conferences such as these, which are held with the regime's consent – whether official or tacit – and some of which are even initiated by the regime itself, allow the latter to portray itself as permitting some criticism and opposition while keeping them under its control. However, this may be a case of "too little too late," and it will be difficult for the regime to plug the hole that it opened for lack of other options.

This document will focus on the opposition conference held in Damascus on June 27, because it would seem that this was the only one of the four that was authentic and not sponsored by the regime.

Give Assad a Chance to Enact Democracy

After three months of protests throughout Syria, during which thousands of Syrians were killed, injured, arrested, and forced to flee the country, intellectuals and independent oppositionists convened at the Samiramis Hotel in central Damascus to discuss ways to solve the Syrian crisis. Among the attendees were prominent oppositionists, some of whom were arrested during the unrest due to their support of the protestors, such as journalist Faiz Sara, who was also arrested in the past for his activity in the "Damascus Declaration" movement, and writer and human rights activist Louay Hussein, who initiated the conference.[5] Another attendee was Michel Kilo, a Christian Syrian writer and human rights activist, who was arrested after signing the "Beirut-Damascus Declaration."[6] Participants stressed that the conference did not constitute dialogue with the regime, but rather an internal debate intended "to characterize the crisis, and consider ways to participate in its resolution" as "a step towards Syrian democracy."[7]

It seems one of the main motives in holding the conference was a desire to present an alternative to the aforementioned opposition conferences in Turkey and Belgium in early June. According to oppositionists, the multitude of opposition conferences abroad created the impression that the opposition inside Syria was stagnant and even absent. The conference was meant to fix this impression by emphasizing the opposition's stance and positioning it as a main factor in any possible resolution to the crisis.[8]

The conference's closing statement was laconic, and expressed support for "the nonviolent popular intifada... for a transition to a secular, democratic, pluralistic state..." The conference made various demands, which were heard throughout the months of protests, such as putting an end to the "security solution" (i.e., military suppression of the protests), releasing political prisoners, establishing independent inquiry boards, and permitting demonstrations and free and balanced media coverage.[9] Unlike the opposition conferences in Antalya and Brussels, and unlike demands made during the protests, the conference's closing statement did not include calls to topple the regime, to submit the Syrian dossier to the International Criminal Court, or to revoke article 8 of the constitution, which grants a leadership monopoly to the Ba'ath party. This statement was presumably meant to prepare the ground for an all-encompassing national dialogue with the regime, in order to bring about change through the existing government institutions, rather than toppling them.

The perception that action must be taken to contain the crisis with the regime before matters get out of hand began formulating several weeks previously, and was reflected in meetings held between independent oppositionists such as Michel Kilo, 'Aref Dalila, and Louay Hussein with Buthaina Sha'ban, President Assad's political advisor, whom Assad ordered to launch a dialogue with regime opponents. Criticism was leveled at these meetings, and Michel Kilo hurried to clarify that "this was not dialogue but an exchange of ideas, during which I told her [Sha'ban] that the security solution cannot produce a positive result, and that the real solution is calling for a national dialogue conference that will include all forces of society, politics, and economics..."[10]

Suleiman Yousef, an Assyrian Christian writer and oppositionist, wrote several weeks before the conference: "...Despite the complex situation in Syria and the deepening crisis... there is a chance to resolve the crisis and to reduce the price of change, if the Syrian leadership has the intention and the political desire to respond to the people's demands and to agree to the principle of 'regime turnover.' President Bashar Al-Assad has a chance to remain president if he joins the forces of democratic change, and accepts his historic responsibility to shift Syria from the phase of tyranny to that of democracy and a civil state... The opportunity to save Syria and prevent it from deteriorating lies in [the ability] of the regime and opposition to place the supreme national interest above all partisan, personal, and group interests, and to look to the national dialogue conference as a 'safe and necessary transition' to solving the crisis..."[11]

Munzer Khaddam, the oppositionist who chaired the conference, explained the conference's timing in his opening remarks: "This consultation conference is being held under very complex circumstances, that open before us two [possible] paths – the first is a clear path, from which we cannot deviate, of transforming our political regime into a democratic one through nonviolent and safe means. This will save our country and people, and set them on the road to dynamic cultural development, a road of strength, prosperity, and progress. The other path leads to the unknown, where ruin and destruction await. We are determined to set our people upon the first path, and those who don't want it can go to hell... "[12]

Though they did not call to immediately overthrow the regime, participants did not hide their opinion that the final goal was regime change. Louay Hussein said: "There is no escaping ousting the tyrannical regime that rules the country and instating a civil democratic regime based on citizenship and human rights, which will ensure justice and equality to all Syrians... We convene in an attempt to understand the reasons for our failure to become a democratic country, and in an attempt to read reality and the destructive dangers it entails. Furthermore, [we convene] in order to find out how we can become such a country in a nonviolent, safe way..."[13]

Article in Daily Close to the Regime: The Conference Has Proven that the Crisis Is Over

Conference organizers stressed that the regime was not asked to approve the conference, and, in fact, did not approve it, but it seems unlikely that such a conference would have been held without the regime's consent. The fact that the Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the regime, covered the preparations for and discussions during the conference, and that Syria's official news agency reported on it, indicate the regime's desire to publicize the conference, in order to serve its own purposes and create the impression that it is taking real steps toward change. However, it should be stated that coverage of the conference was fairly objective and included criticism leveled at the regime by participants.[14]

An article by 'Issa Al-Ayoubi in Al-Watan indicates the regime's intentions in allowing the conference: "Monday, June 27, was an awe-inspiring day. It was a Syrian day and a cultural day. Those who convened at the Samiramis Hotel in central Damascus... refused to be a tool [in the hands of foreign forces, and acted instead as] oppositionists who serve the homeland, rather than act against it... Yesterday in Damascus, the Syrians won, and refused to be a tool or a victim... stressing that those who toy with [the fate] of the homeland and the nation are [but] a misguided minority. Last night, Syrians faced the challenge and exposed all the false claims and all the 'media cells.' Oppositionists and [regime] opponents declared that Syria is in good shape, that the crisis has ended, that the reform, dialogue, agreement, and understanding workshop has begun, and that the convoy is moving forward..."[15]

Measured International Support

International and Arab elements reacted to the conference with measured support, calling it an initial sign of positive change within the Syrian regime, but at the same time calling on the regime to stop the violence against the protestors. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the conference marked a positive step on the part of the Syrian regime toward a true national political dialogue that would provide a way out of the current crisis.[16] British Foreign Secretary William Hague likewise regarded the conference as a positive step, but stressed that until the Syrian regime ended the violence, freed all its political prisoners, and made assurances that peaceful protests would be allowed, any call for national dialogue lacked credibility and any opposition conference would be ineffectual.[17] The U.S. also welcomed the conference, describing it as a step in the right direction, but called for an end to violence.[18]

Support for the conference was also voiced in Saudi Arabia. Jasser Al-Jasser, editorial board director at the Saudi government daily Al-Jazirah, wrote: "...This is a positive development or, more accurately, the best of the positive steps being taken now in Syria. Those who attended the convention in Damascus, in their own country, are patriotic politicians who no one can claim are serving foreign interests to the detriment of Syria's. If the [Syrian] presidency and government succeed in building a bridge to [these politicians], there may be a nonviolent way out of the crisis in the country that will distance [attempts at foreign] intervention, whatever they may be – European or Western, Iranian or Turkish, or even Arab. This conference is the beginning of a practical and effective political process through which the Syrians will resolve their own problems, without giving in to dictates or pressures, but by complying with the people's desire for freedom, honor, and non-imported democracy."[19]

Oppositionists in Syria: The Conference Was Held at Gunpoint

Most of the criticism leveled at the conference came from oppositionists outside Syria, who expressed concern that it bolstered the regime rather than the protests and pulled the rug out from under the demand to overthrow it. Thus, Nawal Al-Siba'i, who participated in the opposition conference in Brussels, said: "...An opposition conference held in [Damascus'] Sheraton Hotel,[20] near all the regime institutions in Syria, is not an opposition conference, but rather a conference in support of the regime. It provides [the regime] with oxygen that increases its ability to steal, lie, and forge, in the face of a hesitant world – [a world] that treats the regime with kid gloves, hoping it will not be toppled... We do not question the intentions of those who present themselves as oppositionists at this conference, but we do question the way, the place, the time, and the circumstances...

"Holding the conference in this way, in Damascus, is a significant act on the part of these opposition elements... It restores to the regime some of the legitimacy it has lost by presenting it as a regime that lets the opposition convene in the heart of the capital. This, while the apparatuses of the regime and its deadly octopus tentacles continue to sow death and destruction throughout Syria... Only the Syrian people hold the key to a solution... They will decide what to do next... Only they can talk about solutions. Only they can decide to continue the revolution, and whether to give it a new form through dialogue and negotiations..."[21]

'Ali Al-Ahmad, an oppositionist living in London, wrote in a similar vein: "...How could Michel Kilo, Faiz Sara, Louay Hussein, and others agree to convene in the shadow of the rifles and bayonets of the Ba'ath members, who have excelled in killing, bleeding, and banishing citizens? How could they buckle to the regime's pressure and agree to assume the role of false representative of the opposition? I appreciate the fear and terror in which they live, and the abuse and coercion that they experience. They have all spent time in regime prisons, but do they not know that they grant false and insincere support to these criminals, who refuse to even affirm the truth about these events – [namely that these events are] a sweeping revolution in the face of oppression and injustice? It is a mistake and a shame for any Syrian politician to agree that his name be disgraced by consenting to the regime's conditions..."[22]

A post on the opposition website, which is supervised by 'Ali Al-Ahmad, said: "This is a call to all true Syrian intellectuals, politicians, and oppositionists... The people want the regime toppled... The Syrian people will not agree to any solution other than the resounding fall of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and his gang, like what happened in Egypt and Tunisia..."[23]

Several days later, the website called to reject "all conferences that provide support to the murderous Syrian regime, thus preventing the international community from acting... because there are talks in Syria that will pave the road for dialogue with the murderous regime... Everyone must object to these conferences that grant [the regime] a license to kill the Syrian people... Stop thinking that we can reach an agreement with the regime on a transfer of power through democratic means..."[24]

Criticism was also leveled at the conference from within Syria. The Union of the Syrian Revolutions' Coordinators claimed that "no one has [the authority] to grant the regime a grain of legitimacy at the expense of the blood of the dead and the pain of the detained."[25]

Hassan 'Abd Al-'Azim, secretary-general of the Arab Socialist Union party and the general coordinator of the National Coordinating Body, which includes opposition organizations and activists in and out of Syria, said that the conference was not organized by the opposition, but rather by intellectuals and thinkers "who became confused. Among the 200 participants were some members of the opposition. The rest are from the [National Progressive] Front [a coalition which includes the Ba'ath Party] and from the regime [itself]. There are those who wish to tarnish the opposition's image. We believe that the purpose of these conferences and meetings is to divide the opposition and to support the security [solution]."[26]

The General Secretariat of the Damascus Declaration also claimed that the conference did not represent the people and its demands. They stated that "the political battle is between a regime that wishes to continue its reign of tyranny, and a society that wishes to [found] a civil democratic state, in which the people are the only source of legitimacy. This people, which is standing up to bullets, and sacrificing pure blood for the sake of the freedom it lost long ago, is examining [with dismay] all those whose perceptions have been skewed by hesitation or fear of the regime's violence, and those who are pursuing arrangements that do not meet their legitimate demands."[27]

This criticism discouraged several prominent oppositionists who were scheduled to attend the conference from doing so, prompting them to withdraw at the last minute and even to speak out against the conference. One of them is Dr. 'Aref Dalila, a prominent oppositionist, who spent many years in prison for his activities. Dalila explained his absence by saying that he does not wish to participate in a conference that serves the regime as a cover for its continuing killings and collective arrests. Other prominent activists who canceled their participation were Dr. 'Abd Al-Karim 'Amr and writer Hussein 'Issu.[28]

Conference Initiator: We Have Proven that There Is a New Reality

Aware of the criticism leveled at them, participants in the conference stressed that it was an internal consultation and not dialogue with the regime, and that they rejected such dialogue so long as violence against protestors continued. They also said that the conference was not coordinated with the regime. One day before the conference, Hazem Nahar, an official in the National Democratic Gathering, said that the conference might not be held as the organizing committee had not asked for authorization from the regime. He stated that if any regime officials came near the conference or entered the premises, the conference would be cancelled.[29] The conference's closing statement further stressed that it was not "an alternative to any opposition organization or element, and did not pit itself against the democratic opposition forces," calling for coordination between various opposition bodies.[30]

At the start of the conference, organizer Louay Hussein said: "...Participants here are not armed [militants] or terrorists, and they do not have a preplanned agenda, except for what they have always said – that the tyrannical regime ruling the country must go, and that we must enact a civil democratic regime... We do not convene here to defend ourselves from a regime that levels despicable charges at us; or from those who accuse us... of betraying our people's ambitions or negotiating with the blood of the victims of freedom; or to exonerate ourselves in the eyes of every skeptic who does not know that many of those present in this hall are the very people who invented the slogans of this struggle that are on the lips of thousands of struggling people..."[31]

Michel Kilo responded to the criticism with anger, saying: "We belong to a small minority that has struggled, often by itself, for the idea of freedom. Now there are those who say to us, 'You want to negotiate the liberty of your people, and enter into agreements behind its back...' When we were alone we did not negotiate, and today, with the millions on the streets, we are unequivocally on their side."[32]

A few days after the conference, Louay Hussein admitted that the regime had exploited the conference to improve its international image, while the criticism leveled by oppositionists against the conference had tarnished how the conference was perceived in the eyes of the public. He stressed, however, that "the conference has proven that there is a new reality, in which dozens of people can say what they want. Thanks to the conference, the official media and Syrian society are discussing things that were once forbidden..."[33]

Similar sentiments were voiced by human rights activist Anwar Al-Buni, who rejected criticism of the conference in Syria, claiming that it had achieved two goals: it established the right of all Syrians to convene in their homeland in a legal and public manner, and also established their right to express themselves clearly, even in criticism of the regime, without being arrested or threatened. Others viewed the conference as a sign that the regime is withdrawing its policy of stifling any opposing voice.[34]

*N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Watan (Syria), July 4, 2011.

[2] Al-Watan (Syria), July 6, 2011.

[3] Al-Watan (Syria), July 4, 2011.

[4] SANA (Syria), July 12, 2011.

[5] The Damascus Declaration – an umbrella term for Syrian opposition forces who signed a document in 2005 called "The Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change." The document stresses the need for democratic reform in Syria, and to end the security regime that has been ruling Syria for more than 30 years. The document calls to enact a democratic regime in Syria, to abolish the emergency law, to free all political prisoners, and to solve the Kurdish problem.

[6] The Beirut-Damascus Declaration is a document published after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, in which hundreds of Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals called on Syria to effect "a fundamental correction" in the relations between the two countries, and to recognize Lebanon's full independence.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), June 26, 2011.

[8], June 5, 2011.

[9], June 26, 2011.

[10], May 13, 2011. The Syrian poet and intellectual Adonis shares the opinion that reform under President Assad is preferable to a coup against him. In his letter to Assad, he called on him to act like the president of a country and not the chairman of a party, and to "pave the path for regime turnover through free and unconditional elections, since free turnover ensures the regime's legitimacy..." Al-Safir (Lebanon), June 14, 2011.

[11], June 6, 2011.

[12], June 29, 2011

[13] Al-Watan (Syria), June 28, 2011.

[14] Al-Watan (Syria), June 28, 2011.

[15] Al-Watan (Syria), June 29, 2011.

[16], June 29, 2011.

[17], June 29, 2011.

[18], June 28, 2011.

[19] Al-Jazira (Saudi Arabia), June 29, 2011.

[20] Initial reports indicated that the June 27 conference was to be held in the Sheraton Hotel, although, as mentioned, it was ultimately held in the Samiramis Hotel.

[21], June 28, 2011.

[22], June 28, 2011.

[23], June 28, 2011.

[24], July 5, 2011.

[25] Al-Rai (Kuwait), June 29, 2011.

[26], July 5, 2011.

[27], June 27, 2011.

[28], June 28, 2011.

[29] Al-Watan (Syria), June 27, 2011.

[30], June 27, 2011.

[31], June 29, 2011.

[32] Al-Watan (Syria), June 28, 2011.

[33] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 7, 2011.

[34] Al-Rai (Kuwait), June 29, 2011.

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