Syria's opposition needs to reassure members of minority communities that they will be protected if President Bashar al-Assad is toppled, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday.

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 as she began a meeting with Syrian opposition members in Geneva.

Assad is a member of the Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, while most Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Some Alawites, Christians and members of other minority groups are fearful that their rights may not be protected if Assad is toppled by an opposition which includes Sunni Islamist groups.

Sitting across a table from six members of the opposition Syrian National Council, Clinton said minorities needed to be sure they would be better off under a government run by Assad's opponents.

We will discuss the work that the Council is doing to ensure that their plan is to reach out to all minorities to counter the regime's divide-and-conquer approach, which pits ethnic and religious groups against one another, she said.

The Syrian opposition that is represented here recognises 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....

The United States has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power since his government launched a crackdown on an Arab Spring revolution eight months ago.

The U.N. human rights chief said last week that more than 4,000 people have died in the violence.

The main U.N. human rights forum has accused Syrian government forces of gross and systematic human rights violations. Syria says it is battling an insurgency by foreign-funded extremists who have killed more than 1,000 of its troops.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Tom Miles; Editing by Peter Graff)