On Thursday, Russia and China vetoed a draft UN. Security Council resolution calling for the Syrian conflict to be referred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. It was the fourth time that Syria’s allies in the Security Council were able to block resolutions referring to the crisis in Syria.
In a wide-ranging conversation in Damascus, briefly interrupted by the sound of mortar fire, TIME’s Aryn Baker sat down with Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad in the days prior to the the Security Council meeting to discuss war crimes accusations, the upcoming presidential election, and why Syria’s President Bashar Assad thinks he is winning the war. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
TIME: President Bashar Assad has said that the war is at a turning point, and that all military operations will be over by the end of the year. Is the Syrian government winning?
Faisal Mekdad: In Syria it is not a matter of winning or losing. We are fighting against terrorism. The battle is not ending yet, but our army is in control. Secondly, we have created a [program for] reconciliation. And we are really optimistic that if we continue succeeding with these reconciliations, [we will have] a real victory against terrorism.
TIME: You describe internationally recognized terror groups, but there also Syrians fighting this battle who are not radicals.
FM: Who are these? If you mean the so-called Free Syrian Army, this is almost finished. It is illogical to say there are moderate armed groups. Everybody who carries arms to kill people, to kill soldiers, to kill leaders, to control areas, is a terrorist.
TIME: The opposition groups say they are fighting for the rights of Syria’s people for democracy and freedom.
FM: If they are dissatisfied with any of the government’s polices, they should go to demand their rights and call for reform. And I assure you that President Assad has done this. But they reject anything less than the departure of the leadership. And we cannot accept this. Who will replace the leadership?
TIME: There is a resolution pending in the Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for war crimes, like the use of barrel bombs and torture.
FM: What is the ICC? You believe in this farce?
TIME: The Syrian government is using extreme tactics, tactics that could be war crimes.
FM: We are not all angels. But the western countries, including France and the UK, have made the Syrian armed opposition out to be a multitude of angels. And these “angels” have proven themselves to be terrorists. The Syrian government is protecting its own people, is combatting terrorism. When terrorists attack our people, do you expect us to respond by throwing flowers?
TIME: You are not just killing fighters; civilians are dying too.
FM: We are not killing civilians . We are targeting terrorists. The responsible party for all this suffering is these terrorists and their masters outside Syria. Those who are killing Syrians want an Islamic state. We cannot allow this to happen.
TIME: The army has also used siege and starvation tactics to force ceasefires, as in the city of Homs.
FM: I think this is a legend, the story of the siege. These people had been in Homs for two and a half years. And they still had all the weapons to fight, and to kill others. So if all kinds of weapons can enter into old Homs how is it possible that a loaf of bread could not?
TIME: You speak of the foreign fighters and foreign influence on the rebels. At the same time you are fighting with support from Iran and [the Lebanon-based Shi’ite militia] Hizballah.
FM: Look, sovereign governments usually receive support to defend their country against terrorism and against foreign interference. You see tens of thousands of American troops in Afghanistan. Sovereign governments have the right to invite all their friends to help them at difficult times.
TIME: Has Syria shipped out or destroyed almost all of its chemical weapons program?
FM: Yes. More than 93 percent of chemical materials have been sent outside of Syria. The rest is something like 40-50 km away, and we are now undertaking security measures to move them outside Syria. Because we don’t want terrorists to target convoys carrying these materials.
TIME: After the failure of Geneva 2 [an international peace conference that took place in January between the Syrian government and opposition leaders, designed to bring opposing sides to a political resolution], do you think there will be a Geneva 3?
FM: I don’t accept that Geneva 2 collapsed. We exercised all flexibility. Frankly speaking the other party came with one agenda point, which is the stepping down of the leadership of Syria. We did not go there to give up power.
TIME: The Geneva communiqué, which you agreed to, calls for transition of power.
FM: That is right, but how can we hand over government before stopping terrorism? And to whom? If we hand over the government, it will go immediately to Jabhat al Nusra and these terrorist groups, not the so-called coalition [National Coalition Of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces]. We are not seeking power, we seek to keep Syria away from being a haven for terrorists.
TIME: The destruction of Syria is immense. Many of your pipelines, electricity systems, hospitals and schools have been decimated. Your Prime Minister estimated it would cost $30 billion to rebuild.
FM: More than $30 billion. We admit that this was disastrous. In all parts of Syria, wherever you find terrorist groups, you find disaster. It will take a lot of resources to rebuild the country, but what is very important is to immediately rebuild the social fabric of Syria, which is more important than materialistic things. I think Syrians will prove once again that they are one people.
TIME: That is President Assad’s campaign slogan: ‘Together we will rebuild.’ He is looking past the election to reconstruction.
FM: Yes. This is the message of the president and the other candidates: to stop killing and to stop terrorism in Syria. To stop foreign interference in Syria, and then to think together on how to rebuild the country. And this is what is there on the slogans being made for the election campaign for Assad and others.
TIME: Elections are planned for June 3. How can there be an election when 9 million are displaced and half the country is out of government control?
FM: I am not saying that the present circumstances are the best for elections, absolutely not. The most important thing is that for the first time we have a multiparty election, and Syrians are happy with this exercise. So with the purpose of not creating a vacuum of leadership in Syria, the elections should be held without any delay.
TIME: There are nearly 3 million refugees. Will they be able to vote?
FM: We have three conditions for Syrians to vote: a valid passport, a valid exit visa and a valid residence permit in their respective country.
TIME: So that means refugees can’t vote.
FM: They can vote. They can come to Syria and vote, and then go out again.
The sound of a distant incoming mortar briefly interrupts the interview.
TIME: That sounded like a mortar round.
FM: It happens almost every day, [rebel mortar attacks] against civilians, and this is exactly what the Syrian army is trying to stop. A few weeks ago a bomb in a school killed 29 children.
TIME: And a Syrian barrel bomb attack killed 17 children in Aleppo.
FM: No, the government never targets schools. I don’t think barrel bombs target schools.
TIME: Barrel bombs don’t target, they land.
FM: I have not heard of such a thing [happening].