National dialogue meeting convenes despite opposition boycott

Syria today opened a “national dialogue” conference despite an opposition boycott which led some to question its credibility.

Vice President Faruq al-Shara was to deliver the opening address to delegates to the dialogue, which was announced in a keynote speech by President Bashar al-Assad on June 20.

Delegates included some independent MPs as well as members of the ruling Ba’ath party, in power since 1963.

But opposition figures said they boycotted the meeting in protest at the government’s continued crackdown on dissent.

The meeting, held at a hotel in Damascus, will end on Monday evening, when the delegates will present the government with its conclusions, according to Al-Watan.

The government said that delegates to the two-day meeting would be invited to discuss a whole raft of reforms, including amending Article Eight of the constitution which enshrines the leading role of the Ba’ath party in political and social life.

Opposition sources that spoke to the pro-government newspaper said they rejected the invitiations sent out by the government because “the atmosphere is not suitable for dialogue,” referring to the continuing presence of the army in many Syrian cities. “The authorities did their duty by inviting the opposition and it was their decision to reject it,” the report continued. “The door is open for anyone who wants to participate.”

Fallout from the US ambassador’s visit to Hama

The US has come under widespread condemnation for its ambassador’s visit to the restive city of Hama on Thursday.

The visit was seen as a boon to protesters, while the Syrian government has condemned the visit as a provocation.

The presence of the U.S. ambassador in Hama without obtaining prior permission from the Foreign Ministry as stipulated by instructions distributed repeatedly to all the embassies is clear evidence of the US involvement in the ongoing events in Syria,” state media reported, citing an unnamed source at the Foreign Ministry, according to the AP.

Syria’s foreign ministry summoned both the French and US ambassadors on Sunday and condemned their actions for “inciting violence”, Syria’s State TV reported.

The Minister of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf) Dr. Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed also denounced the presence of the US Ambassador Robert Ford in Hama, according to SANA. While Bouthaina Shaaban, Media and Political adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, said the visit was unauthorised and “an escalation” by the US diplomat.

Religious leaders condemned the move at Friday prayers, including Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti, the influential Imam of the Umayyad Mosque.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister Mohammad Reza Raouf-Sheibani said the move showed Washington’s clear meddling in Syria’s internal affairs, adding that it was against international diplomatic norms.

Al-Watan in a lengthy report detailed how its correspondent said the visit was planned days in advance and residents “hid all of the weapons” to show that the demonstrations are peaceful.

They welcomed the ambassadors with roses and rice but throw bombs on Syrian army tanks,” the report read. “Instead of negotiating with the state they are negotiating with the US ambassador. This visit is going to have a huge effect in the coming days, but it is a skeptical visit, because an ambassador has not intervened in the internal affairs of a state in recent history. They are seeking to isolate the area from the state like Libyans did in Bengazi.”

Army finishes operations in Al-Zawiyah, focuses on Hama

Armed groups that have been fighting government forces in Idleb province have “escaped” and headed for Hama, according to local media reports.

In the area of Al-Zawiyah, which has seen a heavy security presence in recent days and several reports of violent deaths, the government says armed groups it is pursuing have fled to Hama which is now “the main safe refuge for all these armed groups.”

The announcement could be a sign that the army may attempt to take control of Hama again, which it vacated following a weekend of bloodshed in early June.

Government sources told Al-Watan that “normal life” had returned to towns in Idleb province, where the army and security forces have been conducting regular operations in recent weeks, and that the International Committee of the Red Cross was distributing essential aid to residents there.

Syria Today (Syria)