AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The President of the U.N. General Assembly said today that at least 80,000 people have been killed in Syria's two-year civil war, and that most of those casualties were civilians. The assembly also approved a resolution today calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside. But that vote was largely symbolic; the resolution is unenforceable.
CORNISH: The best chance at the moment for peace in Syria appears to be a rough plan announced last week, between the U.S. and Russia - unlikely partners. The plan: To bring representatives of Syria's government and the opposition together in June, in Geneva, to work out a transitional government that would ease Assad from power.
BLOCK: As for whether the Assad regime will take part in those talks, we're going to ask Syria's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal Mekdad. He joins me by phone from his home in Damascus.
Mr. Mekdad, welcome to the program.
FAISAL MEKDAD: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: I just want to play for you a bit of what Secretary of State John Kerry had to say yesterday, about the planned Geneva talks.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: If he decides not to come to the table, it will be another one of President Assad's gross miscalculations.
BLOCK: So, Faisal Mekdad, is the Assad regime prepared to send representatives to Geneva next month, to try to negotiate a peaceful end to this war?
MEKDAD: From the beginning, the Syrian leadership and the Syrian government have confirmed that the only solution and way out from this crisis is a peaceful settlement. Of course, in no way we can accept the threats from Mr. Kerry or from any party. Syria is discussing its participation, is coordinating its stances with Russia.
And we, from the beginning, will come the American-Russian rapprochement. And said that the United States - if it is faithful and sincere to the agreement in Moscow - it should immediately stop its support of terrorist groups plundering Syria. And they should also ask their supporters in Arab countries and in Europe who are sustaining terrorism and supporting al-Qaida to destroy and damage Syria.
BLOCK: Well, let me ask you this. Secretary Kerry said that the Russians, your ally, told him that the Assad government had given him a list of Syrian officials who would attend the conference in Geneva. Is that true? Have you provided that list?
MEKDAD: A long time ago, we have appointed a governmental team to take care of the different issues related to a peaceful settlement. And this is what we have told Moscow.
BLOCK: Well, the premise of this meeting in Geneva would be to establish a transitional government to replace President Assad by mutual consent between the Syrian regime and the opposition, according to Secretary of State John Kerry. The Russians back such a plan, they're your ally. Is that acceptable to you?
MEKDAD: The replacement of President Assad means destruction of Syria, means no international conference, and means support of terrorism. If this is the objective of the conference, then there will be no conference. The objective of the conference is to find agreement between the government of Syria, led by President Assad, and the opposition, without any preconditions.
BLOCK: Faisal Mekdad, you said that if President Assad were to step down that would mean the destruction of the Syria. A lot of people would say what's going on in Syria right now is the destruction of Syria; a civil war, tens of thousands - 80,000 people killed.
MEKDAD: This is the destruction of Syria by the armed groups who are supplied, armed, and financed by the United States, by some Arab countries, by Western Europe. And this is why Syria is under destruction. President Assad is doing his will to preserve the unity and to electoral integrity of Syria. If the armed terrorist groups would stop their attacks, there will be peace in Syria.
BLOCK: You believe there will be peace if all leave the opposition would stop fighting, and lay down their arms?
MEKDAD: It is not the government who are started the fighting. It is these armed groups who are attacking civilians, who are attacking villages and cities, and killing people. This is, of course, a different view of what's happening as being conveyed to the international community by certain powers and countries who are falsifying the reality about what's happening in Syria.
BLOCK: When you talk about foreign countries, of course, the Syrian regime itself gets support from Russia, from Iran; there are Hezbollah fighters in Syria dying every week. Our reporters in Lebanon have seen the funerals of those Hezbollah fighters who've been buried back in Lebanon. Aren't there international forces at play here on the Syrian government's side, as well?
MEKDAD: Absolutely not. The Hezbollah and its supporters are dying as a result of attacks from the terrorist elements from Syrian territory against Lebanon; and who are being supported by certain Lebanese forces against their own people. They are not dying on Syrian territory. But as I confirmed, the Syrian army is defending Syria against any interference and against any terrorist attacks being encouraged by Turkey, by the United States and others.
BLOCK: Let me just follow-up on that, Faisal Mekdad, because our reporters in the region say it's very clear that Hezbollah fighters are fighting on Syrian soil, on behalf of the Syrian regime and are dying on Syrian soil.
MEKDAD: I am confirming to you that we don't need foreign fighters, whether Hezbollah or others, because we have enough people who are defending their homes and their country.
BLOCK: And Iran, no fighters coming from Iran, from the Revolutionary Guard to fight on Syria's behalf?
MEKDAD: Absolutely not.
BLOCK: Faisal Mekdad, I want to ask you about chemical weapons being used in this conflict. We heard Secretary of State Kerry say that there is strong evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against civilians. He called it a terrible choice.
Do you acknowledge that chemical weapons have been used? And if so, do you take responsibility for that?
MEKDAD: What kind of questions are you asking? Of course, when chemical weapons were used in Syria in Khan al-Assal near Aleppo, it was the government who have immediately declared that the armed terrorist groups have used chemical weapons. We immediately wrote to the secretary-general of the United Nations and requested an investigation team. But while we were waiting the arrival of the mission, we heard that they want to investigate other allegations raised by France and the U.K., saying that four months ago there were rumors it was alleged that chemical weapons were used.
The allegations by France and the U.K. are just a matter of cover-up for what happened really in Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. And it is very clear that they don't want to send an investigation group because they stand behind those armed groups who have used these chemical weapons. And they don't want an investigation. Yet, we are still waiting until this minute. And we welcome the arrival of the investigation team, which has never been dispatched by the United Nations' secretariat, as a result of the pressures by France and the U.K.
BLOCK: The U.N. team, of course, says it is precisely your regime that has blocked their access, has not given them the access that they need.
MEKDAD: And through NPR, we ask them to come immediately to investigate this case near Aleppo.
BLOCK: Full access? These investigators could go anywhere they need to go in the country?
MEKDAD: They will come and investigate this case in Khan al-Assal first.
BLOCK: And after that?
MEKDAD: When we know there are sincere, professional, and honest and neutral, we shall look into any other substantive allegation.
BLOCK: Faisal Mekdad, thank you for your time.
MEKDAD: Thank you.
BLOCK: Faisal Mekdad is Syria's vice minister of Foreign Affairs. He spoke with us from Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.