The Obama administration moved to expand contacts with opponents of Syria's President Bashar Assad on Tuesday as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a rare meeting with Syrian opposition figures and the top U.S. envoy to Syria returned to Damascus after a six-week absence.
Amid reports of a new surge in violence that the U.N. says has killed more than 4,000 people since an uprising against Assad erupted in March, Clinton told Syrian pro-reform activists in Geneva that she wanted to hear their plans to establish a new democratic government if they are successful in prying Assad and his regime from power.
The invitation was a step short of endorsement, but a clear sign the U.S. wants to work closely with those who might assume leadership roles.
"Obviously, a democratic transition is more than removing the Assad regime. It means setting Syria on the path of the rule of law," Clinton told the activists who are all exiles in Europe and belong to the Syrian National Council, one of several umbrella groups for Assad foes.
Tuesday's meeting marked only the second time Clinton has held an in-person session with members of the Syrian opposition since President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down in August amid a still ongoing brutal crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators. As with Libya's exile opposition, the U.S. has stepped carefully in its contacts with Syrian opposition figures. The hesitance comes partly out of concern that the U.S. not be seen as trying to direct a revolution from afar.
Clinton sidestepped a request from one among the group of exiled academics for more formal U.S. recognition, a U.S. official familiar with the meeting said afterward. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the confidential discussions, said Clinton told the group that the U.S. primarily wants to see them continue organizing and suggesting ways the U.S. can help.
The activists described a worsening campaign of often sectarian retribution in Syria, in which Assad forces use rape as a weapon against both men and women and attempt to use ethnic and religious divisions to fuel violence and turn potential opponents against one another, a second U.S. official said. Several in the group outlined fears of civil war among Syria's fractious ethnic groups if Assad hangs on much longer, a threat that also looms if he goes.
Syria is a country with a fragile jigsaw puzzle of Middle Eastern backgrounds including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druse, Circassians, Armenians and more. Decades of minority Alawite rule under the Assad family has bred resentment.
Dozens of bodies were dumped in the streets of a Syrian city at the heart of the country's nearly 9-month-old uprising, a grim sign that sectarian bloodshed is escalating as the country descends further toward civil war. There were reports of retaliatory attacks pitting members of the Alawite sect against Sunnis.
The sectarian violence is a dire development in Syria, and one that opposition members say plays directly into the regime's hands. Since the uprising began, Assad portrayed himself as the lone force who can ward off the radicalism and sectarianism that have bedeviled neighbors in Iraq and Lebanon.
Opposition figures have accused Assad's minority Alawite regime of trying to stir up trouble with the Sunni majority to blunt enthusiasm for the uprising.
Clinton praised the Syrian National Council Group for its own religious and ethnic diversity and for its pledge to work to unify factions in the country.
"The Syrian opposition, as represented here, recognizes that Syria's minorities have legitimate questions and concerns about their future, and that they need to be assured that Syria will be better off under a regime of tolerance and freedom that provides opportunity and respect and dignity on the basis of the consent rather than on the whims of a dictator," Clinton said at the start of the meeting.
She sat with the seven activists for more than 90 minutes. The State Department identified six of them to reporters, including Syrian National Council President Burhan Ghalioun, a Sorbonne professor. A seventh participant asked not to be identified. Syria has targeted opponents both inside and outside the country.
The meeting in Geneva came as Washington announced that U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is returning to his post in Damascus after being recalled because of security concerns and worsening violence.
Ford, who was withdrawn in late October, is due to return to Syria overnight despite the surge in violence, the White House and State Department said. The administration has argued that Ford's presence in Syria is important for advancing U.S. policy goals by meeting with opposition figures and serving as a witness to the ongoing violence.
"His return demonstrates our continued solidarity with the Syrian people and the value we place on Ford's efforts to engage Syrians on their efforts to achieve a peaceful and democratic transition," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
"We believe his presence in the country is among the most effective ways to send a message to the Syrian people that the United States stands in solidarity with them," he said.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the Syrian government had been notified of Ford's return and that the U.S. expected that authorities would guarantee his safety in keeping with international diplomatic obligations.
Ford was brought back from Syria on Oct. 22, prompting the Syrian government to recall its ambassador to Washington. Ford had been due to return to Syria in late November, but instability, including attacks on several foreign diplomatic missions, prompted the administration to delay his trip.
Ford's presence in Syria is a symbolic part of Obama's effort to engage Damascus, which was without a U.S. ambassador for years after the Bush administration broke ties over Syria's alleged role in the 2005 assassination of a political candidate in neighboring Lebanon.
In September, Ford and several colleagues were pelted with tomatoes and eggs by a violent mob as they entered the office of a prominent Syrian opposition figure. No one was injured, but officials said several heavily armored embassy vehicles sent to help extricate them from the situation were badly damaged with broken windows and dents when the same crowd hurled rocks.
Ford has angered the Syrian regime by visiting protest centers outside of Damascus in a show of solidarity with the anti-government uprising. Those incidents have further raised tensions between Washington and Damascus, which has accused the United States of helping incite violence in Syria.
Lee reported from Washington.