Clinton to Syrian opposition: ousting al-Assad is only first step in transition
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at OSCE conference in Lithuania
December 6th, 2011
01:33 PM ET

Clinton to Syrian opposition: ousting al-Assad is only first step in transition

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."

soundoff (9 Responses)
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  4. Caleb

    the regime of al-assad must go. the statement that foreign intervention will be supporting al qaeda in syria is crap. this movement started as a peaceful, grassroots movement for democratic reform in an autocratic and repressive government..even if there is an al qaeda element present in the opposition, does not mean this is the shared will of the syrian people. the same speculation was made about lybia that al qaeda will fill the vaccum left by gadaffi. but they didnt because people wanted deocracy not jihad

    December 8, 2011 at 9:52 am | Reply
  5. James C. L'Angelle

    Clarissa Ward and the CBS "Inside Syria" story, real or fake? details, see:

    December 6, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  6. Stephen Real

    This is a total outrage! Totally outrageous! The Syrian people need protection. This is an international tragedy what's going on in Homs. These people are incredibly courageous and heroic and they need our help. Where is Saudi Arabia? Where is Jordan? Where are the Egyptians? Come on fellas! Are we going watch these people be butchered like dogs in the streets? They need arms for self defense in the very least.

    December 6, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • ms1234

      Everyone says everyone needs our help, and everyone in government picks and chooses where to send our presence, based upon their own agenda. I REALLY WISH all these involvements, dramas, decisions about heads of state and status of local dissident election rebuilding and which country has rebels ooooh, i really wish these exciting happenings, could be replaced with decisions based upon HUMANITARIAN need, and NATO rules of life and decency, rather than which rebels have how many guns. That will never end. Wasnt Beirut a "big deal" like 40 years ago, this is all still news to get involved in? There are genuine humanitarian issues in Africa. I am a taxpayer. I see young men die from my community, in a land far away. Gee. I want to see it for more than this ever-shifting b.s.

      December 8, 2011 at 7:39 am | Reply
  7. ragee

    Mrs. Clinton is making the worst mistake. How can we support AL-Qaeda in Syria , while our men and women are dying to end AL-Qaeda. Armed fanatics are what bin Laden before he formed AL-Qaeda. The Obama administration is not helping the 22 million Syrians, the Obama administration is supporting the few thousands fanatics. This is very dishonoring to our men and women.

    December 6, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Reply

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