WASHINGTON Syrian rebels are gaining ground and will eventually control swathes of territory, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still has time to negotiate an exit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday.
Speaking as if military victory by the Syrian opposition was an inevitability, Clinton told reporters that it was now time to plan the "day after," urging the rebels think through how they may govern the country and how to prevent sectarian reprisals.
The last week appears to have been the bloodiest in the conflict in which the Alawite minority that has ruled the Sunni majority country for four decades has sought to crush the rebels' 17-month violent uprising against Assad.
"We have to work closely with the opposition because more and more territory is being taken and it will, eventually, result in a safe haven inside Syria which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition," Clinton said at a news conference with Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.
"We do believe that it is not too late for the Assad regime to commence with planning for a transition, to find a way that ends the violence by beginning the kind of serious discussions that have not occurred to date," Clinton said.
Clinton said that among the challenges the opposition must prepare for are creating governing entities, protecting Syria's chemical weapons, facilitating humanitarian relief and committing to protect the rights of all Syrians should Assad fall.
"It's important to look at these day-after issues," Clinton said.
"We're working across many of these important pillars of a transition that is inevitable. It would be better if it happened sooner both because fewer people would die or be injured, but also because it would perhaps prevent sectarian retribution," she added.
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Andrew Quinn; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Cynthia Osterman)