WASHINGTON – 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 after he was recalled six weeks ago because of security concerns and worsening violence.
In Geneva, Clinton told a group of seven Syrian pro-reform activists that she wanted to hear their plans to establish a new democratic government if they are successful in prying President Bashar Assad and his regime 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.
The meeting in Geneva came as the State Department announced that the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, is returning to his post in Damascus.
Ford, who was recalled in late October, 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 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.