U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with senior Syrian National Council members in Geneva to discuss their specific ideas for transitioning toward democracy, especially any ideas that include reaching out to minorities.
It was Clinton’s first meeting with the seven individuals, which included the Syrian National Council’s president and its human rights and civil society coordinator.
"Obviously a democratic transition includes more than removing the Assad regime," said Clinton. "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."
Although seven Syrians met with Clinton, only six were comfortable revealing their identities. All seven live in exile.
It is only the second time Clinton has met with Syrian opposition members.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford returned to Damascus after being recalled in late October amid concerns for his safety.
At that time, State Department officials said Ford was brought back to Washington as a result of "credible threats” and what a spokeswoman termed "regime-led incitement" targeting Ford.
In response, Syria recalled its own ambassador.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner issued a statement saying Ford’s presence in Syria is an effective way to show the U.S. stands with the Syrian people.
Ford has been an outspoken critic of the Syrian government's violent crackdown on political dissent.
Violence in Syria has escalated in the last 24 hours, with activists reporting more than 50 deaths in a continuing government crackdown on dissent. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told VOA more than 20 of the 34 people reportedly kidnapped and killed on Monday in Homs were dumped in the streets overnight.
The head of the Britain-based group Rami Abdelrahman said the circumstances surrounding the deaths remain unclear, but that none of the deaths occurred during pro-democracy demonstrations.
The Assad government received words of support from Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday.
In a rare public appearance in Beirut, Nasrallah lashed out against the U.S., accusing it of seeking to destroy Syria. He said he is in favor of Assad's plans for reform. Nasrallah made the comments during a speech marking the Shi'ite holy day of Ashura.
"We say yes to dealing with the phenomena of corruption, yes to all the reforms that were accepted by the Syrian leadership and that were called for by the Syrian people," said Nasrallah. "But there are some people who do not want reforms, security and stability in Syria, and neither civil peace nor dialogue. There are people who want to destroy Syria to make up for their defeat in Iraq, and Syria is a partner in defeating the Americans in Iraq."
The U.S. and its allies have been trying to isolate the government of Assad in response to its nine-month crackdown on political dissents.
The Syrian government proposed on Monday new conditions to allow observers into the country to monitor Syrian compliance with a pledge to stop cracking down on the pro-democracy uprising. The Arab League said it is studying a Syrian proposal that was received on Monday and contains "new" conditions that the regional bloc had not heard before.
The United Nations says 4,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government began in March.