By CNN's Elise Labott
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a rare meeting with leaders of a leading Syrian opposition group Tuesday, a sign of the Obama administration's deepening engagement with political dissidents seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad
Clinton invited activists belonging to the Syrian National Council to a meeting to hear their plans to establish a new democratic government in Syria and to reach out to Syria's minorities, many of whom remain loyal to the al-Assad regime.
"Obviously, a democratic transition is more than removing the Assad regime," she told them. "It means setting Syria on the path of the rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender"
The seven activists are all exiles living in Europe. Among them Burhan Ghalioun, a professor who lives in Paris, who serves as president of the SNC.
This is the second time Clinton has met with members of the Syrian opposition. She met a separate group of activists in July at the State Department. The Obama administration has not endorsed the SNC yet, but it has been steadily increasing its outreach to the group and U.S. officials have called them a "leading and legitimate" interlocutor.
Clinton said the opposition understood that Syrian minorities needed to be reassured that they would be better off "under a regime of tolerance and freedom."
She urged them to counter the regime's "divide and conquer approach, which pits ethnic groups against one another."
The meeting comes as U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford headed back to Damascus after leaving in October amid threats to his safety. Syria followed suit by recalling its ambassador to Washington.
"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.
Ford had antagonized the Syrian government with outspoken criticism of the regime and support for the protesters. Before he left, al-Assad supporters attacked the U.S. Embassy and the ambassador's convoy.
The United Nations estimates more than 4,000 people have been killed in Syria since February, when al-Assad began attempting to put down anti-government protests with police and troops. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 34 civilians died Monday in Homs, the scene of the heaviest recent fighting.
CNN is unable to verify the reports because Syrian officials have restricted access to the country by reporters.
Syrian officials say they are battling "armed terrorist gangs" that prey on civilians. But the crackdown has led to widespread criticism throughout the region and economic sanctions by the Arab League and neighboring Turkey. The United States and the European Union have called on al-Assad to step down.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters that Syria is committed to reforms to end the crisis, and he pointed to decisions to pull back some troops and release some prisoners as evidence.
Syria is among the Middle Eastern and North African countries wracked by the "Arab Spring" demonstrations that arose after the revolt that toppled Tunisia's longtime strongman in January. Subsequent uprisings toppled two of the region's longtime autocrats, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, while Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh has signed an agreement to step down by February in the face of widespread unrest there.
Libya's revolt was backed by NATO airstrikes, authorized under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians from reprisals by government troops.
In an interview with CNN's Rima Maktabi, Ghalioun said that international humanitarian intervention may be needed to protect Syrians from the ongoing clampdown "even if we have to use some force."
"The topic of foreign military intervention is a dangerous and critical topic and should be taken seriously," Ghalioun said. "But unfortunately, this regime is pushing people to seek foreign military intervention. Some are demanding foreign military intervention without knowing the consequences."