GENEVA (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a rare meeting on Tuesday with Syrian opposition figures as the Obama administration returned its top envoy to Damascus, both signs the U.S. is increasing pressure on the Bashar Assad regime and looking ahead to a time when he is gone.
Ambassador Robert Ford had been recalled from Damascus six week ago because of threats on him and rising violence.
In Geneva, Clinton told a group of seven Syria n pro-reform activists that she wanted to hear their plans to establish a new democratic government if they are successful in prying Assad from power. Her 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.
“We certainly believe that if Syrians unite, they together can succeed in moving their country to that better future,” Clinton told the group. Reporters heard her greeting to six of the exiles, who agreed to be identified publicly despite a campaign of retribution against Assad opponents inside and outside Syria. A seventh joined the meeting later because he did not want to be identified.
The meeting in Geneva came as the State Department announced that Ford was returning to his post in Damascus.
The United States has abandoned hope that Assad might pull back from the crackdown and install reforms. But the U.S. has not endorsed any candidate or movement as a successor, and has been careful not to be seen as prescribing a solution from afar.
Ford is due to return to Syria overnight despite the Assad government’s continuing crackdown on reformers, the 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.
“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.
“We believe his presence in the country is among the most effective ways to send the message that the United States stands with the people of Syria,” he said.
Ford’s recall on Oct. 22 prompted 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 now-abandoned 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.