The United States says the Syrian government's decision to allow a meeting of opposition figures in Damascus was a positive step, though much more needs to be done to open political space in the troubled country. The State Department also said Tuesday the U.S. ambassador to Syria has begun meeting ranking Syrian officials after having been denied such contacts for weeks.
U.S. officials say there is still great skepticism about the intentions of the Syrian leadership, but that gestures in recent days suggest the political atmosphere may be easing.
The State Department welcomed as "progress" a meeting Monday in the Syrian capital of opposition figures and intellectuals, said to be the first of its kind in decades.
It said U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford has met with key advisers to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in recent days after being denied such contacts for more than a month.
It also described as a "move in the right direction" the unimpeded staging of protests in a least a few Syrian towns in recent days, though others were broken up by force.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the fact opposition leaders were able to convene without interference was "progress" and "something new and important for the democratic process in Syria," though she said President Assad must go further.
"President Assad knows what has to happen in Syria if that country is going to move in the right direction," said Nuland. "So our message to him hasn't changed and won't change. We're simply pleased to see that the opposition has been allowed some breathing space. And a key element of Syria moving in the right direction will be that that continues to be the case, and that the government begins to engage with these folks."
Nuland indicated that U.S. envoy Ford used his newly re-established contacts with senior Assad aides to intervene for opposition members, when it appeared that Monday's meeting was going to be barred.
The Syrian government said it has invited some opposition figures to join in talks July 10 to set a framework for a political dialogue promised by President Assad.
But some Syrian activists said the Monday meeting was only a media event to try to improve the image of the Assad government, which is blamed for the deaths of some 1,300 demonstrators in a violent crackdown on dissent since mid-March.
Journalist and Syria expert Andrew Tabler, a visiting fellow at Washington's Institute for Near East Policy, says those who took part in Monday's meeting were mainly older opposition figures, and not the young activists who are driving the protest movement on the ground.
Tabler also says the big question for the promised dialogue is whether Assad is really willing to discuss yielding power after 40 years of family rule.
"What exactly is on the table? Does that mean that the Assad regime is going to set up a structure where President Assad would give up the presidency? Is that it? I mean it's a security state," Tabler noted. "Would the secret service be dismantled? I will depend on what's on the table. Talking is not enough. There has to be some kind of transition to something fundamentally different."
The Obama administration has stopped short of flatly demanding Assad's departure, saying he must implement reforms or "get out of the way."