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Syria Begins National Talks On Political Crisis

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Syria began a national dialogue today in Damascus to bring the four-month crisis to an end. But the meeting's credibility is on the line. Opposition to the meeting comes from street protesters and from Syria's traditional opposition figures. They are boycotting the meeting.

NPR's Deborah Amos is monitoring events from Lebanon. Good morning, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: If the opposition is boycotting, you know, how do you have a national dialogue?

AMOS: Well, Syria's vice president opened the meeting this morning. All of the participants were invited by the government. It's mostly officials, loyal opposition, some members of Parliament and some young professionals. Now, the traditional internal opposition - these are men and women who've been jailed over the years for criticizing the government - they said no to talks while the government continues a ruthless crackdown on peaceful protesters.

One example is Arif Dalila. He's a 70-year-old economist. Dalila was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2001. And he says he doesn't believe the government is serious about reform. Here's what he said:

ARIF DALILA: Now I think the authority could not change. They speak about changes but they didn't do. And they have no wishes to do.

AMOS: That's economist Arif Dalila, a government critic. And he says he wants to see deeds not words coming from the government.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this meeting, Deb. It's being broadcast on Syrian television. If all of these important people, and important elements of the discussion are not there, what are they talking about?

AMOS: Well, the meeting was surprisingly open. The vice president kicked off the dialogue with a salute to the people who died. He said this meeting couldn't have happened if Syrians on the street had not sacrificed their blood. That's very unusual for the government. There have been some unscripted moments already. One man called for the gunfire to stop in Hama and Homs - those are two rebellious cities in the center of the country.

There are talks about a multiparty system, rather than one-party rule. This can't happen, though, without dismantling the security state. There are more than a million members in the security service, the intelligence branches. And these people have impunity. A new Human Rights Watch report, based on interviews with defectors, says they were given orders to shoot protesters to disperse them.

When the protesters shout "the fall of the regime," it's a bit of a mistranslation. What they're saying is the fall of the system, and they're talking about the security state.

WERTHEIMER: So this dialogue was proposed by the president, by Bashar al-Assad, to end the political crisis in the country. Do you see that it goes any way toward accomplishing that?

AMOS: It's unprecedented to have this broadcast on Syrian TV; the discussions are new. But I called around to different cities last night, in Hama, where the biggest protests have taken place. That city has barricaded itself in. It's surrounded by tanks. Activists say the army has threatened to come in and dismantle those barricades, if the activists don't do it.

In the city of Zabadani, it's a resort town west of Damascus, there are checkpoints on every corner. And the activists say that their names are on lists for arrest. Many of them have already moved into the mountains to avoid being taken. In Damascus, two were killed in a protest near the center of the city on Friday. This is unusual in the capital. The shootings so far have been in the provincial towns.

A prominent art director joined a protest in Damascus. He was arrested. This is unusual for a person with that kind of reputation to join the protests.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Deborah Amos is reporting from Beirut, and apparently on her way back to Damascus.

Deb, thanks.

AMOS: Yes, I am. Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.