Syrian dissidents plan first big public meeting amid fears of squabbles

More than 100 dissidents expected to take part as Baathists hope meeting will show their opponents as divided, ineffective and with no political programme to match Assad's.

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DAMASCUS // Syrian dissidents plan to hold the first large public gathering of opposition figures inside the country for decades today, in an effort to map a way out of the continuing internal crisis.

More than 100 civil rights activists and intellectuals, including the meeting organiser, Luay Hussein, are expected to participate. The conference has been given the go-ahead by Syria's authorities, activists confirmed.

Opposition political parties have refused to take part, fearing the meeting will add legitimacy to the regime while it continues a security crackdown against protesters.

"The environment for this is not right," said George Sabra, a leading political opposition figure. "The gathering will be used by the regime to try to show to the world it is sincere about a political solution, when on the ground it is pushing only a military solution and is not at all serious about politics."

Civil society activists acknowledged that such risks are involved when the dissident group gathers at the Semiramis Hotel in central Damascus.

Anwar Al Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer who recently completed a five-year prison term for his activism, said: "I trust the organisers of this and dialogue is good, in principle, but it could be a disaster if they fail to make an agreement. People will look and say, 'The opposition is divided and offers no alternative,' which will work against their goals."

A member of the ruling Baath party, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he expected exactly this type of damaging public squabble.

"They will not be able to agree on anything and people will see the opposition for what it is - divided, ineffective and with no political programme to match president Bashar Al Assad's," the Baathist said.

Select foreign media, including the US news channel CNN which was only recently allowed into the country, are expected to cover the meeting.

Abdel Karim Rahawi, a Syrian rights campaigner who will attend, insisted it would not give political cover to the regime and would present a basic platform of principles around which all activists could unite. He said that platform would include a commitment to peaceful change and a demand that violence against demonstrators end at once.

"It will be the first chance we have all had to actually meet together at the same time and discuss ideas," he said. "We do not claim to represent the protesters in the streets, but we do hope to come up with a set of points that we, they and the rest of the Syrian people can agree on. That will be progress."