Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met here with leading members of Syria’s opposition Tuesday amid a fast-moving escalation of international pressure to force the departure of the country’s President Bashar al-Assad.

After nearly two hours of talks with top officials of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella organization that came together this summer, a senior State Department official said Clinton deemed the council a “leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful democratic transition.”

As the meeting took place, around a table decked with white roses in a small hotel conference room, there were new reports of violence in the central Syrian city of Homs. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted witnesses as saying 34 bodies were dumped in the streets Monday night.

One resident of Homs, who declined to give his name because of safety concerns, said dozens of people had been arrested and executed in a public square in the city.

Also Tuesday, the Arab League said it would maintain sanctions against Syria, after the Assad government said it would reject a proposal for military monitors and observers unless the league lifted suspension of Syria’s membership. The United States and Europe have imposed economic sanctions.

High-profile meeting

The Geneva meeting was the most high-profile encounter to date between the opposition and the Obama administration. The State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the private session, said Clinton asked about the council’s transition plans and
its recognition of the need to reach out to Syria’s myriad
minority groups and came away impressed.

The council leaders did not ask for a public U.S. endorsement or recognition, the official said, and indicated that they saw a continuation of Arab League efforts as the best way forward.

But “what’s new here, and fairly significant,” the official said, “is that the secretary of state had this meeting.” Council leaders had previously met with Clinton’s counterparts in Britain, France and Germany.

In a statement to the seven council leaders before reporters were ushered from the room, Clinton said, “We certainly believe that if Syrians unite, they together can succeed in moving their country to [a] better future.” She said the United States is “committed to helping . . . make this transition.”

U.S. envoy heads back

The meeting came as the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was returning to Damascus, a month and a half after leaving for “consultations” in Washington following what the administration said was a government-backed campaign of intimidation against him, including an attack on his home in the Syrian capital.

A White House statement said that Ford has “our full confidence and support” and that his presence in Syria “is among the most effective ways to send a message to the Syrian people that the United States stands in solidarity with them.” It also called on the Syrian government to uphold international obligations to protect him and allow U.S. officials there “to conduct their work free of intimidation or obstacles.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) praised the administration’s decision to send Ford back, saying in a statement that the ambassador had helped expose the Assad government’s crimes and demonstrated enormous courage. “Robert Ford is guts and grit personified,” Kerry said.

Unlike in Libya, and to a lesser extent in Egypt and other countries where Arab Spring protests have forced authoritarian leaders from power or toward substantive reforms, protests that began in Syria in March have mostly failed to cohere.

When the United States and others recognized Libya’s Transitional National Council, opposition forces were united under its leadership, with a military force and control over significant territory, including the eastern city of Benghazi. In Egypt, an interim military government was recognized after the military itself withdrew support from then-President Hosni Mubarak.

In Syria, Assad’s military has largely held firm against protests in which the United Nations last week estimated that 4,000 people have been killed and many more injured and imprisoned.

Although the Obama administration and other world leaders have called for Assad to step down, they have been hesitant to recognize an alternative while waiting for Syria’s multiple ethnic, religious and minority groups to coalesce. Clinton reinforced that point in her opening statement.

“The Syrian opposition, as represented here,” she said, “recognizes that 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 on the whims of a dictator.”

“Obviously, a democratic transition includes more than removing the Assad regime,” Clinton told the council leaders.

Formally unveiled in Istanbul in October, the Syrian National Council comprises a coalition of local organizing committees that has led protests inside the country, the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and a number of minority organizations.

Most of its named individual members live in exile outside Syria. The delegation to Geneva was led by the council’s president, Burhan Ghalioun, a sociology professor who heads the Center for Arab Studies at the New Sorbonne University in Paris and is a dual citizen of Syria and France.

Other attendees included Abdulbaset Sieda, a Kurd who holds a doctorate in philosophy and lives in Sweden; Bassma Kodmani, a political scientist who directs the Arab Reform Initiative at the International Academy of Diplomacy in Paris; Abdulahad Atepho, a language professor in Belgium; Wael Merza, a member of Syria’s Circassian minority who lives in the United States; and Najib Ghadbian, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.

The seventh member of the group did not want to be publicly named because of safety concerns, a U.S. official said.

Special correspondent Alice Fordham in Cairo contributed to this report.