Hillary Clinton sees Syrian opposition, US envoy returns

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US 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 US 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 US 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 US policy goals by meeting with opposition figures and serving as a witness to the ongoing violence.

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