Syria activists meet, call for change to avert crisis

Some of Syria's leading intellectuals called on Monday for sweeping political change that could end 41...

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

Some of Syria's leading intellectuals called on Monday for sweeping political change that could end 41 years of Assad family rule, at a rare conference allowed by the authorities under pressure from a three-month uprising.

The government also announced that it would invite opposition figures to July 10 talks to set the framework for a national dialogue promised by President Bashar al-Assad, and that constitutional changes would be on the agenda.

Facing the biggest threat to his rule since he succeeded his father 11 years ago, Assad has held out the prospect of political reforms while sending his troops to crush protests across the country.

Many opposition figures have rejected Assad's call for dialogue as insufficient and some activists refused to take part in Monday's conference, saying it could be exploited by authorities while mass killing and arrests continue.

Nevertheless, the conference included outspoken opponents of Assad, some of whom pulled no punches.

"The solution to this crisis has to address its root causes. This regime must be toppled and replaced with a democratic system," said leading Syrian writer Michel Kilo, who spent three years as a political prisoner.

Supporters of Assad were also present at the conference, billed as a meeting of independents seeking a way out of the crisis. Organisers said the gathering had approval from a senior aide to Assad.

Rights groups say 1,300 civilians have been killed in demonstrations and 12,000 people have been arrested since the start of the uprising, which has posed the gravest threat to Assad's rule since he succeeded his father 11 years ago.

The government says more than 250 members of the security forces have died in clashes provoked by militants.

CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE

The July 10 meeting will help launch a dialogue that Assad announced in a speech last week. The state news agency SANA said the agenda would include constitutional amendments, such as changes to an article which puts Assad's Baath Party at the centre of Syrian politics.

"All the national political and intellectual figures and forces" would be invited to attend the meeting, called by a committee led by Vice President Farouq al-Shara, SANA said.

"The committee confirms that there is no alternative to a political (solution)...and to widely opening the door before all Syrian citizens to take part in building a democratic and pluralistic society," it said.

Many activists and opposition figures say they will not attend such a meeting because a national dialogue is not possible amid violence and a continued crackdown.

At Monday's conference, attended by 150 people, some speakers adopted a softer tone than those calling for Assad's removal but nonetheless said demands of street protesters must be met after decades of autocratic rule.

Writer Louay Hussein, another former political prisoner, said repression in the last four decades had undermined Syria. But he emphasised that peaceful means must be found to meet popular demands.

Monther Khaddam, an academic from the coastal city of Latakia, said a wider national dialogue was needed and that intellectuals were "behind street demands until the end."

Economist Aref Dalila, a major figure behind the gathering, pulled out at the last minute, saying that he did not want to participate in a conference that could be exploited by the authorities while mass killing and arrests continue.