GENEVA - The Obama administration moved Tuesday to boost contacts with foes of Syria's President Bashar Assad, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a rare meeting with Syrian opposition figures and the top U.S. envoy to Syriato Damascus after a six-week absence.
Amid reports of a new surge in violence that the U.N. says has killed more than 4,000 people since an uprising against Assad erupted in March, Clinton told Syrian pro-reform activists in Geneva that she wanted to hear their plans to establish a new democratic government if they are successful in prying Assad and his regime from power.
The invitation was a step short of endorsement, but a clear sign the U.S. 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.
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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 Washington announced that U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is returning to his post in Damascus after being recalled because of security concerns and worsening violence.
Ford, who was withdrawn in late October, is due to return to Syria overnight despite the surge in violence, the White House and State Department said. The administration has argued that Ford's presence in Syria is important for advancing U.S. policy goals by meeting with opposition figures and serving as a witness to the ongoing violence.
"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," White House press secretary Jay 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," he said.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the Syrian government had been notified of Ford's return and that the U.S. expected that authorities would guarantee his safety in keeping with international diplomatic obligations.
Ford was brought back from Syria on Oct. 22, prompting the Syrian government to recall its ambassador to Washington. Ford had been due to return to Syria in late November, but instability, including attacks on several foreign diplomatic missions, prompted the administration to delay his trip.
Ford's presence in Syria is a symbolic part of Obama's effort to engage Damascus, which was without a U.S. ambassador for years after the Bush administration broke ties over Syria's alleged role in the 2005 assassination of a political candidate in neighboring Lebanon.
In September, Ford and several colleagues were pelted with tomatoes and eggs by a violent mob as they entered the office of a prominent Syrian opposition figure. No one was injured, but officials said several heavily armored embassy vehicles sent to help extricate them from the situation were badly damaged with broken windows and dents when the same crowd hurled rocks.
Ford has angered the Syrian regime by visiting protest centers outside of Damascus in a show of solidarity with the anti-government uprising. Those incidents have further raised tensions between Washington and Damascus, which has accused the United States of helping incite violence in Syria.