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With Police Lurking, Dissidents Meet In Syria

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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 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/.

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