Clinton tells opposition Syria must be free

US ambassador is returning to Damascus; secretary of state meets with Syrian opposition in Geneva.

December 7, 2011 04:01
3 minute read.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton speaking 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao )


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WASHINGTON – In a show of support for anti- Assad opposition members, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with one of two Syrian opposition coalitions on Monday hours before Damascus denied that it had begun a significant crackdown on rebel groups.

The secretary of state met with seven leaders of the Syrian National Council (SNC), including the organization’s president Prof. Burhan Ghalioun, for nearly two hours in Geneva, Switzerland, in order to hear its plans for a democratic transition and for reaching out to Syria’s varied ethnic and religious minorities.

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The seven-member delegation included a woman, Christians, a Kurd, an Alawi, a Circassian and Sunni Arabs.

State Department officials said that Clinton and the SNC members spoke about the divideand- conquer approach of Assad’s regime in pitting Syrian minorities – such as Kurds and Assyrians – against each other, and the use of violent strategies such as the targeting of children and rape against both men and women.

One opposition member told Clinton that “it is the regime that is trying to militarize, sectarianize and Islamicize our revolution for dignity.”

Clinton expressed her hope that Assad would agree to step down and leave office in the near future, and complimented the SNC’s transition plan, saying that it should even appeal to Syrians who supported the Assad regime as ensuring regional stability.

The meeting also discussed the Arab League initiative on Syria, and the importance of the Assad regime implementing the steps as it agreed to do in early November.

A senior State Department official said that “the United States considers the Syrian National Council to be a leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful, democratic transition,” but stopped short of offering any official status to the coalition. The SNC is the newer of the two opposition coalitions, and is considered to be more conservative, including members of the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The State Department acknowledged that it is also carrying out additional conversations with other Syrian opposition figures and groups, but one senior official reiterated Washington’s satisfaction with the planning carried out by the SNC.

Despite the show of support, the State Department denied that Clinton’s Monday meeting had been planned, together with the return of US Ambassador Robert Ford to Damascus after a weeks-long “visit” to Washington.

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State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday that Ford is “going to continue the same kind of work he did previously, which is delivering our message of support for the Syrian people, and trying to provide reliable reporting on the situation on the ground, and engaging as best he can, given the limitations, with the full spectrum of Syrian society, on how to both end the bloodshed and begin a democratic transition.”

Toner did, however, add that Clinton’s meeting and Ford’s return “is all part of this consistent drum beat, and the message is that we care about the Syrian people, [that] we are working with the Syrian opposition to find ways that they can be more responsive to the Syrian people, as well as find ways to lead this democratic transition and also that we’re putting Ambassador Ford back because we... think he plays an effective role in calling the world’s attention to what’s going on there."

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