Contact Group To Focus On Syrian Political Transition

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has confirmed she will attend Saturday's meeting in Geneva of a new contact group on Syria. The meeting is aimed at halting the violence and facilitating a political transition in Damascus. Clinton's decision to attend came after Iran was dropped from the meeting, organized by special envoy Kofi Annan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Supreme Court has upheld the health care law. That is the headline news this morning. The court said the so-called individual mandate virtually is constitutional. That's the provision that requires virtually all Americans to buy health insurance. The high court majority put some restrictions on the federal government's ability to control Medicaid funds for states. But most of the health care law stands. We have more coverage later in the program and in the day. For the next few minutes we'll turn to another story - Syria and efforts to stop the bloodshed there.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This weekend, Hillary Clinton will travel to Switzerland, where former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is shifting his efforts on Syria. His peace plan has so far failed to quell escalating violence there. Now he's asking permanent U.N. Security Council members, and some of Syria's neighbors, to come together and endorse a political transition plan.

MONTAGNE: Annan agreed to drop Iran from the invitation list for Saturday's meeting in Geneva.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, with that change Secretary of State Clinton agreed to attend the meeting.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Clinton says Annan has been circulating a concrete roadmap for a political transition in Syria - one the U.S. supports - and she's hoping this Geneva meeting could be a turning point in diplomatic efforts to resolve what looks increasingly like a civil war.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: Painful, tragic, dangerous, difficult - we know that. But we are moving with as much deliberation and speed as we can, given the circumstances.

KELEMEN: Clinton blames Russia and China for shielding Bashar al Assad at the United Nations Security Council. And she says the meeting Saturday in Geneva will only work if they and others come to endorse Annan's latest plan.

CLINTON: If he's able to pull off such a meeting and if he's able to get people there who up until now have either been on the sidelines or actively supporting and protecting the Assad regime, then that gives heart to the opposition. It also disheartens a lot of the regime insiders.

KELEMEN: Annan has often said that Iran should be part of the solution for the Syrian conflict, but Clinton balked at that idea and Iran was dropped. In what looked like a concession to Russia, Saudi Arabia, which has been supporting the Syrian opposition, was also dropped from the invitation list.

Kofi Annan has invited just the veto holders on the U.N. Security Council, as well as Turkey and the European Union's foreign policy chief. The Arab League will be represented by Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. Kofi Annan is calling it an action group.

KOFI ANNAN: The action group for Syria should agree on guidelines and principles for a Syrian-led political transition that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people, and to agree on actions that will make these objectives a reality on the ground.

KELEMEN: His language was cautious and in line with what Russia has always said, that this should be a Syrian-led political process. While Russian officials have made clear they're not wedded to President Assad, they have not called him to leave, as the U.S. often does.

But Clinton says the idea of Annan's transition plan is to prepare for a post-Assad Syria. And she's clearly hoping Russia can use whatever influence it has to help. Clinton is to meet Friday evening with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Saint Petersburg before both head to Geneva for Annan's action group meeting.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Helsinki, Finland.

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