- Associated Press - Sunday, July 10, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s vice president on Sunday called for a transition to democracy and credited protesters with forcing the regime to consider reforms.

Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa spoke at a national dialogue that opened Sunday with some critics of the government. But the main opposition driving the 4-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian rule boycotted the meeting, saying they refuse to talk until the deadly crackdown on protesters ends.

“I hope that we will reach … transition to a pluralistic democratic state that enjoys equality for all citizens who participate in forming their own shining future,” Mr. al-Sharaa at the opening of two days of talks in the capital, Damascus.

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Mr. al-Sharaa’s comments highlighted the extent to which the uprising has shaken the dynasty of Mr. Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.

The Syrian regime has used a mix of brute force and tentative promises of reform to try to quell the uprising, which was inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Some 1,600 civilians and 350 members of security forces have been killed since demonstrations began, activists say.

Mr. al-Sharaa acknowledged that the promise of reforms would not have come without the uprising.

“It must be recognized that without the blood sacrifices that was shed by civilians and soldiers, … that this national dialogue would not have been held, at this high level of supervision, under the lens of cameras,” he said.

But at the same time, he condemned some protesters as tools of foreign agents seeking to inflame sectarian tensions and divide the country — echoing Mr. Assad’s position.

The government accuses foreign conspirators and thugs for the unrest, not true reform-seekers.

The conference was a rare step in a country where people rarely criticize the regime publicly or directly, fearing retribution by the pervasive security forces. Though the main opposition boycotted the dialogue, some opposition figures, intellectuals and members of parliament were on the other side of the table.

On live Syrian television — which usually is a tightly controlled medium for the regime — a series of intellectuals slammed the government for using force against protesters.

Still, leading opposition figures and some of the coordinators of the anti-government uprising said they would not participate in the dialogue, saying it sought to whitewash the regime’s brutal crackdown.

“They are blockading (restive) cities and killing demonstrators, arresting people and torturing people to death,” said Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for a loose network of anti-government activists. “That cannot create a good environment for dialogue.”

Also Sunday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the American and French ambassadors to protest their visits to the restive city of Hama, which has become an opposition stronghold.

The ministry said the visits Thursday and Friday were interference in the country’s internal affairs and accused the ambassadors of undermining Syria’s stability. The diplomats arrived in the city Thursday and stayed overnight but left before thousands took to the streets there Friday as part of the weekly protests around the country.

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