Syrian official on opposition: 'They are living in a different era'

Story highlights

  • Syria's deputy foreign minister sits down with CNN in Damascus
  • Faisal al-Mekdad defends Syria's president, identifies stopping terrorism as main issue
  • "When the ship is in wild seas, the leader -- the captain-- should not step down," he says

The opposition is against democracy and afraid of what the nation's people want, Syria's deputy foreign minister told CNN on Wednesday.

Faisal al-Mekdad spoke in Damascus.

"I think they are living in a different era. These people are coming from the Middle Ages. They are against democracy. They are against elections, and they are against even the territorial integrity and unity of the Syrian people," he said.

Al-Mekdad defended Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, brushing aside calls for him to resign by saying that "at a time when the ship is in wild seas, the leader -- the captain -- should not step down."

"We are ready to talk on anything but no way we can create a vacuum in Syria -- a vacuum which will lead to the disintegration of the country, to lawlessness in the country.

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"And our decision is to put all that we agree upon to a referendum by the Syrian people because the Syrian people (are) the owner of the final decision in the entire process," he said.

When asked to respond to the opposition's fear that the government could rig such a vote, the official accused the other side of being "afraid of the people."

"They are afraid of the decision of the people because they know they are isolated and they know the people (are) not with them," said al-Mekdad.

Report: Government to send teams to peace talks

Syria plans to send a delegation to Switzerland early next year to participate in peace talks, but the opposition Free Syrian Army says it will pass.

The United Nations announced that the often-delayed "Geneva II" conference aimed at ending the Syrian civil war starts January 22 in Geneva.

"At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiation table rather than the battlefield," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a news conference this week.

Ban may have been referring to other opposition groups. The Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay al-Mokdad told CNN on Wednesday that it will not attend because the international community has not lived up to previous agreements.

"The international community said they were committed to delivering aid to our people, releasing the women and children prisoners in al-Assad's jails and lifting the siege on our cities and villages," he said.

"Until now they have not achieved any of these. So how can they guarantee that Assad has no future in Syria?"

'The main issue is stopping terrorism'

Geneva II is a successor to Geneva I, a June 2012 meeting in which international parties laid out a peace plan for Syria that calls for a transitional governing body. It left open the question of whether al-Assad must leave power.

The United States and Russia announced in May that they would try to bring the warring parties to a second conference in Geneva to implement the plan. But the second Geneva conference was delayed several times.

State-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported this month that government officials would attend the conference without preconditions and with the goal of stopping violence in the country.

"The main issue is stopping terrorism. By this, we help Syria. We help neighboring countries, and we help the international community," said al-Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister.

"And then, when we -- Syrians -- sit together, we are open to discuss everything. Everything should be agreed by consensus and then the final objective we have in mind is to solve, on a political basis, the ongoing crisis."

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 after government forces cracked down on peaceful protesters during the Arab Spring movement. It is now a full-blown civil war. The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died in the conflict, and 9 million have been displaced.

The Free Syrian Army surfaced in July 2011, when seven Syrian military officers -- believed to be the group's original members -- appeared on a YouTube video announcing their defection. They promised to wage guerrilla war against al-Assad.