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GENEVA (Reuters) - 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 to members of the Syrian National Council, a group seeking a democratic transition to end Assad and his late father's 41-year hold on power.
Some Syrians, particularly among Assad's Alawite sect and Christian communities, fear a collapse of his rule could lead to a new government dominated by Sunni Islamists and usher in the kind of ethnic and sectarian warfare seen in neighbouring Iraq after the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
What began nine months ago as peaceful protests against Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring that toppled authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, has slid closer to civil war as Syrian armed opposition groups organise against Assad.
At least 4,000 people have been killed in the violence, according to the United Nations.
Opposition members who met Clinton said they understood the need to reassure the Alawites, many of whom fear reprisals.
The SNC sketched out a transition plan involving a handover of power to a provisional government with limited powers, the departure of Assad, his family and close aides and the eventual election of a democratic government, U.S. officials said.
Opposition members said they emphasized to Clinton the need to find a way to protect civilians in Syria -- possibly through the creation of "safe zones" -- despite the international community's reluctance to contemplate an armed intervention of the sort that toppled Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
Meeting Syrian exiles for the second time in six months, Clinton focused on protecting minority rights in a country whose Sunni majority has long been dominated by Assad's Alawites. Their sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite 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.
"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," she added.
Clinton said she planned to discuss how the group hoped "to counter the regime's divide-and-conquer approach, which pits ethnic and religious groups against one another."
While the meeting signalled U.S. respect for the SNC -- U.S. officials said they regarded it as a "leading and legitimate group" -- it did not confer formal recognition.
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.
Kodmani said the opposition understood that the Alawite community could play a "pivotal" role in prolonging Assad's rule and that the SNC had to make clear that "The community is not held responsible for any of what is happening."
"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," she added.
"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 Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Arab states such as
Saudi Arabia. It is also home to substantial religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians and Kurds.
Ghadbian said the group had not sought recognition. "We recognize that we need to do a lot before we get to that."
He also said the SNC wants to see more creative ideas on how to protect civilians even without a U.N. Security Council resolution that is all but certain to be blocked by Russia.
"We want countries to entertain that, (to) get them ready to think outside the box," he told Reuters after the meeting.
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 safety concerns.
Ford, who left Syria on October 24, 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 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."
Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Robert Woodward