Clinton Meets Syrian Opposition in Geneva as U.S. Envoy Returns to Mideast

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Geneva with Syrians seeking to end the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, a sign of the Obama administration’s determination to see the end of al-Assad’s government.

Clinton spoke for almost two hours yesterday with members of the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups, shortly after the State Department announced it was sending Ambassador Robert Ford back to Syria. Ford was pulled out on Oct. 24 due to fears for his safety.

“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 spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement yesterday. The U.S. expects al-Assad’s government to fulfill its obligation to protect diplomatic personnel, he said.

Clinton said she is listening to Syrian opposition plans to oust al-Assad’s government and shift the country to democracy. She urged them to protect universal rights, the rule of law and minorities. She also called for opposition groups in the coalition to work together.

“If Syrians unite, they together can succeed in moving their country to that better future,” Clinton said. “We are well aware that there is a lot of hard work to be done. There are many Syrians in exile. We are committed to helping their country make this transition.”

Free Syrian Army

Syria’s opposition has historically been fragmented and the opposition Syrian National Council, which includes secular groups and Islamists in Syria as well as abroad, still excludes other dissidents. The SNC has criticized soldiers who left al- Assad’s army to set up the opposition Free Syrian Army, headed by former Colonel Riad al-As’ad, for acting independently of the council at times. The FSA, whose leadership is in neighboring Turkey, says its ranks include more than 25,000 army defectors.

Relations between Syria and Turkey have deteriorated gradually since the uprising against al-Assad began in March. Syria closed some border crossings to Turkish vehicles and moved tanks to the region, Turkey’s NTV reported today. Syria is allowing passage for vehicles with Syrian license plates, according to the Istanbul-based news channel. Al-Assad’s army moved six tanks to a region bordering southern Turkey, NTV said.

Seen as Legitimate

A State Department official present at the meeting said the U.S. considers the council to be a leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful, democratic transition. The official wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. Clinton spent almost two hours with the group, the official said.

The seven coalition representatives at the meeting told Clinton that they are seeking a peaceful, orderly transition in which al-Assad, his family and key figures in the leadership would leave Syria after transferring power to a provisional government with limited authority before elections are held, the official said. They told Clinton that the end result would be a Syrian-designed democracy, one in which citizenship would transcend sect or gender, he said.

They made no reference to holding al-Assad or other leaders accountable or to methods of reconciling social, ethnic or political divisions created by the violence that has wracked Syria since the protests began, according to the official.

No Revenge

Clinton expressed hope that al-Assad would see merit in leaving and commended the council plan as measured, deliberate and devoid of revenge, the official said.

While the U.S. is in touch with other opposition groups, the official said, the administration has been impressed with the progress the SNC has made in unifying the opposition within and outside Syria.

One member of the ethnically and religiously diverse group suggested that the U.S. formally recognize the council, as it did the National Transition Council in Libya, which now temporarily governs that country. Clinton responded by saying that, for now, they should focus on outreach to minorities, the official said.

The regime is playing “divide and conquer” with minority communities in Syria, the official said, pitting one against the other and suggesting they have more to fear if another sect comes to power than if the al-Assad government stays.

The group said minority outreach would be their top priority, to which they would dedicate significant resources. They will also focus on detailed planning and diplomacy, the official said.

Protect Civilians

They asked Clinton to place a very high priority on addressing the killings in Syria and spoke of the need to protect civilians in Homs and Hama, scenes of some of the worst violence during al-Assad’s crackdown on protesters. They told Clinton of reports that security forces were using rape as a weapon against men and women and were targeting children.

The fastest way to create “safety zones” for these civilians would be if Syria would approve the Arab League’s request to send more than 500 observers to the country, the group told Clinton.

The council believes that, if they can get the observers into the country, chances are the regime won’t do its worst, they told Clinton, according to the official.

Clinton had met Syrian opposition figures once previously, in August, shortly before the U.S. began explicitly calling for al-Assad to step down.

All seven of the representatives are exiles. Many opposition figures inside Syria say they are afraid to leave because they may not be allowed to return.

Mob Violence

Ford was due to arrive back in Syria early today. He was recalled to Washington from Syria in October, a month after a violent mob of government supporters hurled concrete blocks at his car and attacked it with iron bars while Ford visited an opposition lawyer.

“He will continue the work he was doing previously; namely, delivering the United States’ message to the people of Syria; providing reliable reporting on the situation on the ground; and engaging with the full spectrum of Syrian society on how to end the bloodshed and achieve a peaceful political transition,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement in Washington.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Geneva at ngaouette@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net; Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

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