Story highlights

NEW: The opposition leaders say they are seeking "a peaceful orderly transition"

NEW: Clinton urges them to reassure minorities that their rights will be respected

NEW: She says the leaders must counter the regime's "divide and conquer approach"

The meeting comes as the U.S. ambassador heads back to Damascus

Geneva, Switzerland CNN  — 

The United States views the Syrian National Council as a “leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful transition,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told members of the exile group Tuesday, U.S. officials said.

Clinton held a rare meeting with leaders of the group, a sign of the Obama administration’s deepening engagement with political dissidents seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad and end his family’s 41-year hold on power.

During the nearly two-hour meeting, Clinton listened to the leaders’ plans for Syria once al-Assad’s rule ends and urged them to reassure minorities that their rights will be respected in a post-Assad Syria, senior State Department officials said after the talks.

One official said the group offered a “poignant” presentation about the need to protect civilians by sending monitors as part of an Arab League initiative.

Another official said Clinton emphasized the need for the Syrian National Council to broaden its outreach and membership to Syrians from minority communities who are afraid the country will descend into civil war if al-Assad is ousted.

“Obviously, a democratic transition is more than removing the Assad regime,” she told them. “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 the leaders must counter the regime’s “divide and conquer approach, which pits ethnic groups against one another.”

The official added the council has done a “pretty credible job” in its public statements trying to convince Syria’s minorities they will better off once al-Assad is out of power. While the Syrian National Council is Syria’s biggest and best-known opposition group, the administration has had discussions with other independent Syrian opposition organizations, the official said.

The official said that the delegation members told Clinton they are seeking “a peaceful orderly transition” in which al-Assad and key family and regime members would leave Syria after transferring power to a transitional government with “limited powers” until elections could be held.

Clinton made clear that the move from the al-Assad regime to a transitional government must be “‘measured, deliberate and utterly devoid of revenge,” the second official said.

While the leaders of the group live in exile, the officials said the Syrian National Council has a number of members living inside the country who remain unnamed to protect their safety

“We have been in touch with this group as it has been evolving,” the second official said. “I must say I am pretty encouraged at the progress this council has made in really moving toward unification of opposition both inside Syria and outside.”

The seven activists who met with Clinton are all exiles living in Europe. Among them is Burhan Ghalioun, a professor who lives in Paris and serves as president of the Syrian National Council.

The group did not formally ask Clinton for U.S. recognition as a transitional Syrian government, preferring to focus their efforts on the Arab League, whose support could persuade the country’s anxious minorities to abandon al-Assad.

One participant in the meeting, however, suggested U.S. recognition would have a “big impact” inside Syria, the officials said.

Clinton said to the individual, “Focus on doing what you are doing. You are getting your act together. You are doing a good job on transition planning. You are doing an increasingly good job reaching out to minorities. Don’t spend a lot of time worried about this issue,” according to the senior official.

This is the second time Clinton has met with members of the Syrian opposition. She met a separate group of activists in July at the State Department. The Obama administration has not endorsed the Syrian National Council, but it has been steadily increasing its outreach to the group and U.S. officials have called it a “leading and legitimate” interlocutor.

The meeting came as U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford was his way back to Damascus after leaving in October amid threats to his safety. Syria followed suit by recalling its ambassador to Washington.

“He will continue the work he was doing previously; namely, delivering the United States’ message to the people of Syria; providing reliable reporting on the situation on the ground; and engaging with the full spectrum of Syrian society on how to end the bloodshed and achieve a peaceful political transition,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

Ford had antagonized the Syrian government with outspoken criticism of the regime and support for the protesters. Before he left, al-Assad supporters attacked the U.S. Embassy and the ambassador’s convoy.

The United Nations estimates more than 4,000 people have been killed in Syria since February, when al-Assad began attempting to put down anti-government protests with police and troops. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 34 civilians died Monday in Homs, the scene of the heaviest recent fighting.

CNN is unable to verify the reports because Syrian officials have restricted access to the country by reporters.

Syrian officials say they are battling “armed terrorist gangs” that prey on civilians. But the crackdown has led to widespread criticism throughout the region and economic sanctions by the Arab League and neighboring Turkey. The United States and the European Union have called on al-Assad to step down.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters that Syria is committed to reforms to end the crisis, and he pointed to decisions to pull back some troops and release some prisoners as evidence.

Syria is among the Middle Eastern and North African countries wracked by the Arab Spring demonstrations that arose after the revolt that toppled Tunisia’s longtime strongman in January. Subsequent uprisings toppled two of the region’s longtime autocrats, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, while Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh has signed an agreement to step down by February in the face of widespread unrest there.

Libya’s revolt was backed by NATO airstrikes, authorized under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians from reprisals by government troops.

In an interview with CNN’s Rima Maktabi, Ghalioun said that international humanitarian intervention may be needed to protect Syrians from the ongoing clampdown “even if we have to use some force.”

“The topic of foreign military intervention is a dangerous and critical topic and should be taken seriously,” Ghalioun said. “But unfortunately, this regime is pushing people to seek foreign military intervention. Some are demanding foreign military intervention without knowing the consequences.”