Syrian opposition calls on Assad to end crackdown
BEIRUT (AP) — Dozens of Syrian opposition members called on President Bashar Assad Sunday to end his deadly six-month crackdown or face an escalation in peaceful protests, as security forces fired warning shots to disperse high school students calling for the regime's downfall.
The weekend meeting drew more than 200 opposition figures, including leading writer Michel Kilo and Hassan Abdul-Azim, who heads the outlawed Arab Socialist Democratic Union party. It was also notable because it took place inside Syria, rather than in a neighboring country, as most others have.
A statement released after the meeting called on Assad's regime to immediately end its "acts of repression," and it urged protesters to keep their movement peaceful and not be tempted to take up arms. The opposition members also stuck by an earlier position to oppose international intervention in Syria, though some protesters on the streets have called for unspecified outside help.
The Syrian uprising began in mid-March, amid the wave of protests in the Arab world that have toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Assad has responded with force in a crackdown that the U.N. estimates has killed some 2,600 people.
Syria has one of the Middle East's most tightly controlled and repressive regimes. Its government is also a key regional player, thanks in part to its support for militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas and its alliance with Iran.
Assad warned Sunday that foreign intervention would divide the region and increase extremism, according to Syria's official news agency, SANA. He also complained that steps by his government like abolishing Syria's decades-old state of emergency and shutting down the special court that tried political prisoners were only met by "foreign pressures," a reference to U.S. and European sanctions.
The opposition consists of a variety of groups with often differing ideologies, including Islamists and secularists, and there have been many meetings of dissidents who say they represent the opposition. But most of those gatherings have been held in safer locations outside the country.
The weekend meeting was organized by a long established group called the National Democratic Change.
Among its demands, it called on the government to order soldiers back to their barracks, allow peaceful demonstrations, bring to justice those responsible for the killing of protesters, and release all political detainees.
"A political solution cannot be achieved if the security and military solution doesn't stop ... ," the statement said.
Opposition figure Samir Aita, who spends much of his time in France, said the movement was open to dialogue with the regime, but only after a halt to the crackdown and the withdrawal of the army.
The 22-member Arab League as well as Syria's neighbors and allies Iran and Turkey have called on Assad to halt the violence, but the Syrian president has not responded.
Russia is also pressing for an end to the crisis. A Russian parliamentary delegation arrived Saturday for four days of talks with political, social and religious figures.
Dialogue needs to held in a "natural atmosphere without violence," said Ilyas Umakhanov, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's upper house.
The Syrian army has been conducting operations in different parts of Syria since shortly after the uprising began. Syria claims thugs and foreign conspirators — rather than genuine reform-seekers — are behind the unrest.
Participants in the opposition gathering warned that unless the government takes steps to end the crisis, protests will escalate, including the possibility of general strikes and civil disobedience.
Also Sunday, dozens of students demonstrated in the Damascus suburb of Kisweh on the first day of the school year in Syria.
At one high school, security forces fired into the air to disperse student protesters, according to an activist network called The Local Coordination Committees. No casualties were reported.
There were also protests at an elementary school in the area, where students shouted, "There will be no classes until the president is brought down," the activists said.
An amateur video posted online showed young men, said to be students, gathering in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta as they clapped and chanted "freedom, freedom."
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a boy succumbed to his wounds in the southern village of Sanamein two days after being shot be security forces.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue