Clinton says post-Assad Syria must protect minorities, women

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the need for a post-Assad Syria to protect the rights of minorities, ethnic groups and women as she met here on Tuesday with Syrian opposition leaders.

Clinton made the points as she met for the first time with members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), which formed in October amid efforts to oust President Bashar al-Assad who is leading a deadly crackdown on protests.

"I'm particularly interested in the work you are doing about how a democratic transition would proceed," Clinton told seven SNC members, including President Burhan Ghalioun, at her hotel in the Swiss city of Geneva.

"A democratic transition includes more than removing the Assad regime," the chief diplomat added.

"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," she said.

"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 said.

"The Syrian opposition as represented here recognises that Syria's minorities have legitimate questions and concerns about their future," the chief US diplomat said.

The opposition understands "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 the consent rather than on the whims of a dictator," she added.

In November, the Syrian National Council announced a political programme aimed at bringing down Assad followed by a parliamentary election after a year's transition.

The SNC said at the time its goal was to "build a democratic, pluralistic, and civil state by ... breaking down the existing regime, including all of its operatives and symbols."

The SNC, the country's largest and most representative opposition group, said another objective was "preserving, protecting, and enhancing the peaceful nature of the popular revolution."

It would try to forge a "pluralistic... parliamentary republic... based on the principles of equal citizenship with separation of powers... the rule of law, and the protection and guarantee of the rights of minorities."

The SNC, which was formally founded in Istanbul on October 2, is made up of Assad's opponents, including the committees organising protests on the ground, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as various Kurdish and Assyrian parties.

So far it has only been recognised by Libya, where the National Transitional Council is now in power following a revolt that ousted dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Meanwhile, the State Department announced that Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Damascus, will return to Syria on Tuesday evening after leaving abruptly in late October because of security threats.

While other countries have removed their ambassador, Washington had tried to keep Ford in place to report on events and keep contacts with ordinary Syrians, sometimes drawing the ire of the Assad regime.

© 2011 AFP

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