DAMASCUS, Syria -- As civil war rages in Syria, the country’s political opposition held a rare public meeting in the center of the country’s capital, calling for the removal of the regime through peaceful means.
“We want to oust the regime and rebuild Syria,” said opposition figure Safwan Akash at the conclusion of the National Conference to Save Syria, held in a hotel in Damascus.
Asked how the country’s long-embattled and fragmented internal opposition planned to oust the regime, Akash said that it planned to reintroduce peaceful protest and rely on sheer numbers of demonstrators to push the government out.
“We want to go back to peaceful, mass protests, back to going on strike, back to civil disobedience,” he said. “Tanks cannot kill hundreds of thousands or millions of Syrians that take to the streets.”
Thousands of Syrians have been killed so far in the 18-month conflict. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said last week that it had verified the killings of nearly 30,000 Syrians due to aerial bombardment, shelling, gunfire, field executions and roadside bombings. The majority of those killed were civilians.
The one-day meeting kicked off early on Sunday with a call to put an end to all such violence, directing blame mainly at the government.
“Enough killing, enough destruction, enough bombardment of our cities,” shouted one member at the conference’s opening.
The meeting seemed to give hope to many residents around Damascus that it might be a solution to end the violence.
“Maybe things will resolve themselves, and I won’t have to move,” said one long-time widow who withheld her name. She had been reluctant to heed her children’s call to leave her home in Damascus and join them abroad.
But the opposition’s pacifism has also been a lightning rod for criticism, especially from the increasingly well-organized armed insurgency that continues to call on its supporters abroad to transfer more weapons.
Last week, the rebel Free Syrian Army announced that it had moved its headquarters from Turkey to inside Syria, a signal to many supporters that the FSA is inching ever so closer to Damascus.
Comments on social media reflected a discontent with a peaceful approach to Syria’s rebellion after so much blood has been shed.
Some people in attendance at the meeting also expressed these sentiments.
'I Believe In Guns'
“It’s easy for them to talk peaceful change, but I believe in guns,” a young man who withheld his name said. “In Homs, I saw mutilated bodies stacked one on top of the other. How can they convince me that pacifism is the way forward?”
But Akash pointed out that already there was a grassroots movement among Syrians to reconcile with the authorities in order to save lives and property.
“People are moving toward this solution in both restive and not-so-restive areas,” he said.
He was referring to an apparent trend in many neighborhoods in and around Damascus.
Like last month in the suburb of Itseyya, the government ordered residents to evacuate their homes so that the Syrian Army can “cleanse the area of armed terrorists.” This usually means a blanket aerial bombardment of the kind that has so far brought down 2.5 million buildings throughout Syria, according to opposition figures.
The International Business Times learned that community elders in Itseyya approached the Syrian government with a pledge. They promised the authorities that no resident of the neighborhood will carry arms and that no one will allow armed outsiders to enter. In return, the government promised not to shell the neighborhood.
Residents have since returned to their homes, and the government’s “cleansing campaign” was apparently halted.
“At some point, the opposition abroad will recognize what the people in Syria want and will become united,” said Akash.
It is not clear what the authorities thought of the meeting, which was covered live on state-run television. But opposition organizers said many challenges had to be overcome to hold the meeting in Damascus.
On Thursday, three opposition members went missing as they drove home from Damascus International Airport, after they had attended meetings sponsored by the Chinese government, in China. It was not immediately clear who kidnapped the men, but the opposition blamed “with certainty” the notorious air force intelligence services.
The incident apparently dissuaded the prominent, and exiled, head of the Syrian National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, Haytham al Mannaa, from attending Sunday’s meeting in Damascus. His colleagues said his safety could not be guaranteed, even though the Russian Embassy in Damascus had pledged to offer him safe passage.
In a live televised interview, al Mannaa said from Paris that he had turned down the Russian offer.
“I refuse to be under the protection of anyone,” he said. “Even here in Paris, I’m not under the protection of the French authorities.”
Also leading up to the meeting, there seemed to be a bizarre misinformation campaign claiming that the meeting had been canceled. This rumor was reported in various media outlets, including Chinese news service Xinhua.
Also cause for concern was an explosion that happened about a 10-minute walk away from where opposition members were holding a closed session. No fatalities were confirmed, but the bomb brought down scaffolding beneath a pedestrian bridge. It appeared to be what locals call “a sonic bomb,” designed to create maximum noise with minimal damage.
Some blame the regime for carrying out these attacks to create an atmosphere of fear, and there was some speculation about whether this explosion may have been a message to the opposition.
At the concluding panel, one member reiterated that there was no way forward other than “ousting the regime.”
He then disembarked from the panel and said under his breath, half-joking and addressing no one in particular, “OK, now can you guarantee I’ll be getting home safe tonight?”