In an unprecedented move today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad permitted some of the country's most prominent dissidents to meet publicly in Damascus and discuss how to transition the country from four decades of Assad family rule to democracy (the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency's article on the meeting goes much further in discussing the demands of activists than previous reports we've seen). The regime is also promising to hold talks with the opposition in July and permit political parties other than the ruling Baath Party in an effort to put an end to Syria's three-month uprising. 

The promise of political reform, however, comes as reports of Syria's deadly crackdown on protesters continue to stream in. As if to highlight that point, Al Jazeera's Arabic and English channels, as well as Reuters, are pairing their coverage of today's conference with disturbing YouTube footage from Friday that appears to show Syrian security forces beating men in Damascus with batons and stuffing them into the trunk of a car, as a woman watching from a window cries (you can watch the full video here). Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell points out that Al Jazeera Arabic has been playing the clip all day long. In this segment from Al Jazeera English, the anchor runs the footage before turning to a Syrian opposition activist to ask whether he thought today's conference was a "sham" or a "sincere attempt to listen to the opposition." 

Reuters shows the video before noting, "Elsewhere in Damascus, the dialogue between those seeking reform and supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, was notably more civilized."

Getting back to the question posed by Al Jazeera's anchor--was today's conference a sham or a meaningful step on the path toward political reform? Here's what people are saying:

  • A 'Cover-Up' "This meeting will be exploited as a cover-up for the arrests, brutal killings and torture that is taking place on a daily basis," opposition figure Walid al-Bunni, who claims he wasn't invited to the conference because of the regime's interference, told Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera adds that some opposition groups, like the banned Muslim Brotherhood, also didn't attend the meeting. 
  • A 'Historic Opportunity' Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab and British Understanding tells Sky News that since the individuals who attended today's meeting aren't connected with political parties, "their objective is to actually get into a situation where they can have a dialogue with the government." 
  • A Step, But Not Far Enough The BBC's Lina Sinjab divides the opposition to Assad's regime into three camps: the independent dissidents who attended today's meeting, Syria's opposition parties, and the protesters on the street. While the groups advocate different strategies to accomplish their goals, she explains, "they have strikingly similar views. The regime must go--and soon."
  • A More Open Dialogue That May Divide Opposition The Wall Street Journal's Nour Malas notes that the conference "appeared to show the scope for political conversation that more than three months of street protests have forced on Mr. Assad's regime." But Malas adds that many anti-government activists in Syria and in exile reject any dialogue with the Syrian government--especially as the violent crackdown persists--and demand Assad's immediate resignation. Assad's "offer of a national dialogue could widen splits within the opposition," Malas warns.