U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged members of Syria’s opposition on Tuesday to reassure minorities that their rights will be respected if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule ends.
Clinton delivered the message in talks with members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an exile group seeking a democratic transition to end Assad and his late father’s 41-year hold on power.
Among Syrians nervous about a change of leadership are many members of substantial religious minorities, including Assad’s minority Alawite sect and Christians, who fear a new government might be dominated by Sunni Muslim Islamists.
What began nine months ago as peaceful protests against Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, has slid closer to civil war as armed opposition groups organize.
At least 4,000 people have been killed in the violence, according to the United Nations.
Meeting Syrian exiles for the second time in six months, Clinton stressed the importance of protecting minority rights in a country whose Sunni majority has long been dominated by Assad’s Alawites. Their sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, the faith of Assad’s allies in Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
“Obviously, a democratic transition includes more than removing the Assad regime. 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,” Clinton said sitting opposite six SNC members at a Geneva hotel.
“The Syrian opposition that is represented here recognizes that Syria’s minorities have legitimate questions and concerns about their future and that they need to be assured that Syria will be better off under a regime of tolerance and freedom that provides opportunity and respect and dignity on the basis of ... consent rather than the whims of a dictator.”
Some Syrians fear a collapse of Assad’s rule could lead to the kind of sectarian and ethnic warfare seen in neighboring Iraq after the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Assad’s “divide and conquer approach”
We will discuss the work that the council is doing to ensure that their plan is to reach out to all minorities to counter the regime’s divide-and-conquer approach, which pits ethnic and religious groups against one another,” she added.
The State Department identified the six opposition members as the Syrian National Council’s president, Burhan Ghalioun, and SNC members Abdulahad Astepho, Najib Ghadbian, Bassma Kodmani, Wael Merza and Abdulbaset Sieda.
In a sign of the risks run by Assad opponents even outside Syria, a seventh opposition member who did not wish to be identified because of safety concerns later joined the group.
Members of the opposition said they understood the need to reach out to minorities. The Alawite minority, in particular, is believed to fear severe reprisals should Assad fall.
“We realize that there is a pivotal role for the (Alawite) community in making this regime last longer and the responsibility of the council is to show, in its own composition as well as in its messages towards the community, to say that the community is not held responsible for any of what is happening,” Kodmani told Reuters after the meeting.
“It is one family that has hijacked the whole community and forced it to support the regime and that we understand that this is the strategy of the regime.
“The community would best protect itself if it defected now ... because then it would choose to be on the side of the people and of the society and be part of this big movement to get rid of a criminal, corrupt regime,” she added.
Like Iraq, Syria lies on a faultline in an intensifying confrontation between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. It is also home to substantial religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians and Kurds.
Separately, the United States said on Tuesday it would send its ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, back to Damascus six weeks after he was pulled out because of concerns about his safety.
It said the move was a signal of solidarity with Syrians.
Ford had antagonized Syria’s government with his high-profile support for anti-Assad demonstrators and Assad’s supporters had attacked the U.S. embassy and Ford’s motorcade.
The ambassador left Syria on Oct. 24 as a government crackdown on protesters and the armed insurgency against Assad intensified, prompting Syria to call its envoy in Washington home for consultations.
Ford had been due to return to Damascus by the Nov. 24 U.S. Thanksgiving holiday but the State Department postponed this, citing the continued crackdown, decisions by other nations to pull their own envoys out of Syria and the question of whether Ford could move around and be effective in Syria.
The White House said it believed his return “is among the most effective ways to send a message to the Syrian people that the United States stands in solidarity with them” but it warned Syria to uphold its obligation to protect diplomats.
“We expect the Syrian government to uphold its obligations to protect diplomatic personnel and facilities under the Vienna Convention and allow our Foreign Service officers to conduct their work free of intimidation or obstacles,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Ford left Syria abruptly in late October, after visiting protest hubs and drawing the ire of the Syrian government, because of what Washington described as security threats.
“His return demonstrates our continued solidarity with the Syrian people and the value we place on Ford's efforts to engage Syrians on their efforts to achieve a peaceful and democratic transition,” Carney said in a statement.
“We believe his presence in the country is among the most effective ways to send a message to the Syrian people that the United States stands in solidarity with them.
France also said on Tuesday that it had returned its ambassador to Syria.