Syrian politicians, intellectuals and clergy were given an unusual opportunity to criticize the country's security apparatus on national television Sunday during the first round of state-sponsored and opposition-boycotted dialogue meetings.
The dialogue, aimed at easing tensions in a nation racked by months of protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad, came a day after Human Rights Watch issued a devastating report chronicling the bloody practices of the security forces during the anti-regime uprising.
"We should dismantle the security state that dominates the whole society. Now we are suffering the consequences of the police state. The police state will destroy every aspect of society as it keeps tabs on every Syrian citizen," Tayyeb Tizini, a professor of philosophy at Damascus University who was briefly arrested in March by security forces, said during the televised conference in Damascus, Syria's capital.
"A part of what is going on is a result of foreign intervention, but 80% of it is a result of internal congestion that comes as a result of oppression and the practices of the security apparatus," said conference participant and parliament member Mohammed Habash in a rare public recognition of the role played by state security forces in a four-month-long cycle of bloodshed.
The talks came after Assad's call last month for a "consultative meeting" to set the framework for constitutional amendments and reforms.
"All sides of Syrian society were called on to participate in the meeting," said Vice President Farouk Shara in the opening address. He said he hoped the meeting would be a step toward making Syria a democratic state based on political inclusivity.
The participants were called on to discuss Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution, which preserves the Baath Party's leading role in the country's politics.
But the absence of key opposition figures has already led many to question the credibility of the initiative. The Local Coordination Committee, or LCC, the primary voice of the anti-regime protesters pouring daily into Syrian streets, issued a communique Wednesday announcing that its members would boycott the meeting, citing the limited scope of the agenda as one reason.
"The problem isn't just with Article 8," Omar Hamwe, an activist in the central city of Hama, said in a telephone interview. "The whole constitution needs to be amended. There are 40 clauses that need to be changed."
Radwan Ziadeh, a leading human rights scholar and activist, called the dialogue a "play" by the regime to send the international community a message rather than an actual step toward change.
"The talks have no credibility in the international community," he said. "The lack of sincerity of the regime is obvious to the extent that no one from the LCC even accepted the invitation."
Hamwe called the conference "a conversation between Assad's Baath cronies" with a handful of independent activists there for "decoration" as the crackdown continues. Even as the dialogue got underway, security forces tightened checkpoints around restive cities such as Homs and Latakia, raided homes, snatched young men off the streets, let loose with gunfire in cities including Baniyas and launched tank raids on villages in the northwest, activists said.
The conduct of Syria's security apparatus has generated an international uproar. In a report issued Saturday, Human Rights Watch revealed details of interviews it had conducted with eight government soldiers who had defected.
The defectors told the human rights organization that their superiors had convinced them that they were fighting infiltrators, ultraconservative Muslim Salafists and terrorists. The soldiers said they were "surprised to encounter unarmed protesters instead." Yet they were still ordered to open fire on the crowds.
"The testimony of these defectors provides further evidence that the killing of protesters was no accident but a result of a deliberate policy by senior figures in Syria to use deadly force to disperse protesters," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
Hajjar is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.