Syria's vice president on Sunday called for a transition to democracy in a country ruled for four decades by an authoritarian family dynasty, crediting mass protests with forcing the regime to consider reforms while also warning against further demonstrations.
Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa spoke at a national dialogue that opened Sunday, with some critics of the government in attendance. However, key opposition figures driving the four-month-old uprising boycotted the meeting, saying they refuse to talk until a 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," al-Sharaa said at the start of two days of talks in the capital, Damascus.
His comments highlighted the extent to which the uprising has shaken President Bashar Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000. While Assad himself has acknowledged the need for reforms in recent weeks, the high-level call for multiparty democracy was remarkable.
Still, al-Sharaa also made thinly veiled threats against the protesters and suggested some received direction from abroad.
"Arabs will not obtain their goals if they rely on foreigners," al-Sharaa said. "Unauthorized protests that lead to unwanted violence will cause the fall of more civilians and soldiers," he said.
Such a carrot-and-stick approach reflects the Syrian regime's policy of using both 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.
Senior opposition figures and activists driving some protests boycotted the meeting.
"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."
Al-Sharaa acknowledged that the promise of reforms would not have come without the uprising.
"It must be recognized, that without the blood sacrificed by civilians and soldiers ... this national dialogue would not have been held, at this high level of supervision, under the lens of cameras," he said.
In a rare acknowledgment of the regime's mistakes, al-Sharaa said demonstrations were triggered by "a great deal of mistakes ... that we swept under our carpets, without thinking deeply about the upcoming days."
Severalopposition figures, intellectuals and members of parliament joined the dialogue.
Their presence was a rare step in a country where people rarely criticize the regime publicly or directly, fearing retribution by the pervasive security forces.
On live Syrian television _ tightly controlled by the regime _ a series of intellectuals slammed the government for using force against protesters.
Emboldened residents speaking to state-run television said they believed some protesters were true reform seekers and that government vows of change had to implemented, not just discussed.
"This dialogue comes at a really sensitive time _ but shouldn't it have come earlier?" one man asked a reporter who was interviewing residents about the meeting.
As the conference was being held, the Foreign Ministry 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 amounted to 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.
In Washington, a State Department official said demonstrators in Damascus threw tomatoes, eggs and rocks at the U.S. Embassy there on Friday and Saturday to protest Ambassador Robert Ford's visit to Hama. There were no reports of injuries, but a senior U.S. State Department official said two embassy employees were pelted with food during the 31-hour demonstration. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity of the issue.
The demonstration broke up only after an embassy security officer appealed to Syrian contacts, who sent additional forces to quell the protests.
The official said Ford registered his "displeasure" with the protests during a meeting Sunday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who pledged to protect the embassy.
Hama poses a dilemma for the Syrian regime because of its place as a symbol of opposition to the rule of the Assad family. In 1982, the late Hafez Assad ordered troops to crush a rebellion by Islamist forces, killing between 10,000 and 25,000 people, rights activists say.
On Sunday, Assad appointed a new governor to the city, Anas Abdul-Razak. Opposition figures said they were not familiar with the man. Assad fired the city's previous governor after Hama residents held the largest anti-government demonstration of the uprising, drawing hundreds of thousands of people.
Diaa Hadid can be reached on twitter.com/diaahadid