GENEVA — 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.