Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says that he never ordered the brutal suppression of the uprising in his country, and insisted only a “crazy person” would kill his own people.
Apparently trying to distance himself from violence that the UN says has killed 4,000 people since March, Assad laughed off a question in a rare interview broadcast on Wednesday about whether he feels any guilt.
“I did my best to protect the people,” he told ABC’s Barbara Walters during an interview at the presidential palace in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
“You feel sorry for the life that has been lost, but you don’t feel guilty when you don’t kill people. No government in the world [kills] its people unless it is led by a crazy person,” Assad added in the interview, which was conducted in English.
Assad, who trained as an opthamologist in Britain, speaks the language fluently.
The interview offered a rare glimpse into the character of the 46-year-old Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000.
Assad, who commands Syria’s armed forces, has sealed off the country to most outsiders while clinging to the allegation that the uprising is the work of foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers aiming to open the authoritarian political system.
The UN and others dismiss that entirely, blaming the regime for widespread killings, rape and torture. Witnesses and activists inside Syria describe brutal repression, with government forces firing on unarmed protesters and conducting terrifying, house-to-house raids in which families are dragged from their homes in the night.
“We’re talking about false allegations and accusations,” Assad said.
When asked if Syrian troops had cracked down too hard on protesters, Assad said there had been no command “to kill or to be brutal.”
“They’re not my forces,” he said. “They are military forces [who] belong to the government. I don’t own them. I’m president. I don’t own the country.”
Assad said some Syrian troops may have behaved badly, but if so they faced punishment. He also said most of the people who died in the unrest were his own supporters and troops, slain by terrorists and gangsters — an allegation disputed by most outside observers.
The comment that Syrian troops are “not my forces” raised flags in Syria and abroad because it suggests Assad might ultimately try to lay the blame on his inferiors, analysts said.
“Those around him got the message, which is he could abandon them at any moment,” said Muhieddine Lathkani, a Syrian opposition figure based in Britain.
After the interview aired, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Assad wanted Walters to understand the military was not his personal “militia.”
Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria expert at George Washington University, said Assad’s interview was both “defiant and delusional.”
“He is the commander in chief of the armed forces,” Jouejati said. “To say that the security forces do not have orders to kill or to brutalize the people — that it’s maybe the mistake of some bad apples — is not a response.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney strongly disputed Assad’s claim that he had not ordered the crackdown.
“It’s just not credible,” Carney said. “The world has witnessed what has happened in Syria. The United States and many, many other nations around the world who have come together to condemn the atrocious violence in Syria perpetrated by the Assad regime know exactly what’s happening and who is responsible.”