Syrian official: We're ready to negotiate with 'real opposition'

Story highlights

  • "We want to end this conflict yesterday," Syrian deputy foreign minister tells CNN
  • War believed to have killed more than 200,000; many more people are refugees
  • Civil war began as part of Arab Spring pro-democracy protests

(CNN)The Syrian government is willing to negotiate a political solution with what it calls the "real opposition," a reference to non-armed groups, a senior government official told CNN in an exclusive interview Thursday.

"We want to end this conflict yesterday," Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said from his office in Damascus. "The Syrian government is ready to be a major party in negotiations that will lead to a settlement that will meet and satisfy the needs and the aspirations of the Syrian people."
    Syria has been locked in a civil war since 2011. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has lost territorial control to a number of groups, including ISIS, which has captured parts of Syria and Iraq for what it calls its Islamic caliphate.

    War began with crackdown on Arab Spring protests

    The war began as part of the so-called Arab Spring in which popular revolts against autocratic leaders sprouted in North Africa and the Middle East.
    In March 2011, pro-democracy protests started in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. Security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing several people.
    That crackdown only added fuel to the fire. More demonstrators took to the streets, and the protests spread across the country, eventually turning into civil war as the government met protests with force and the opposition began to arm itself.
    The death toll over four-plus years has been staggering. As of March, estimates stood at 220,000 deaths. Some Syrian cities lie in ruins.
    And many thousands of refugees have fled the country. More than 1 million have poured into neighboring Turkey. Others have reached European shores or died trying.
    But the problem has been a thorny one for the international community. In a conflict that has the brutal Syrian dictator al-Assad on one side and the terrorist group ISIS among those on the other, it is difficult to decide whom to help.

    Mekdad: Al-Assad 'is the only guarantor of any victory'

    In his interview with CNN, Mekdad said the government's offer to talk does not extend to its armed opponents in the civil war.
    "We are ready to sit with all kinds of opposition," he said, "but not with terrorist groups, not with ISIS, not with Jabhat al Nusra."
    Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in a 2013 interview with CNN.
    Jabhat al Nusra, or al-Nusra Front, is an al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria and Lebanon.
    The U.S.-led coalition carried out 24 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria on Wednesday, the U.S. military said.
    But Mekdad said the United States was making a mistake in launching attacks on ISIS from Turkey without coordinating them with the governments of Iraq and Syria. Without such cooperation, he said, the U.S. action will be ineffective.
    And he dismissed American calls for al-Assad to step down.
    "President Assad is the only guarantor of any victory," he said. "If they continue with this policy, they are on the losing side. They are promoting terrorism, and they will allow terrorists to flourish in the entire region and beyond the region. This logic has failed ... and it will not achieve anything."