Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that he feels “no guilt” about the brutal deaths of thousands of protesters in ten months of uprisings in his country and said that he has not given orders to use violence against them. As he has since the popular protests began in mid-March, Assad insisted that the violence was due to “armed criminal gangs,” as well as religious extremists and terrorists sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
Assad made his statements during an interview with ABC News’s Barbara Walters that was broadcast on Wednesday. Saying that he was not in charge of security forces that have reportedly killed over 4,000 people, Assad claimed that he did not give commands to “kill or be brutal.” He also said that Syrian troops accused of cracking down on protesters were “not my forces” and that:
“They are military forces (who) belong to the government. I don’t own them. I’m president. I don’t own the country. No government in the world kills its people, unless it is led by a crazy person.”
Assad’s claims are undermined by the fact that, as the President of Syria, he is actually the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, up to 25,000 of whom have defected to the opposition.
Also in the interview, Assad questioned the legitimacy of the United Nations, which has reported that over 4,000 have died and accused his regime of crimes against humanity. According to Assad, most of those who have died were supporters of the government, including 1,100 soldiers and police. While some officials had, Assad assented, made “mistakes,” he insisted that there is a “difference between having a policy to crack down” and some individuals using their powers excessively. He spoke of Syria’s membership in the UN as a “game we play.”
Assad has so far made promises of democratic reforms and greater freedoms in Syria, but these have yet to materialize; indeed, the protests have continued despite the crackdown. Opposition figures met on Tuesday with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva, Switzerland.
The BBC’s Jim Muir observed that Assad’s giving the interview showed that he was “clearly concerned to reach out to American public opinion and policy-makers to correct the wrong impressions he believes they are being given about what is happening in Syria.”
White House Response
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Assad’s claims that he did not order the killing of protesters were “not credible”:
“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.”
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner disputed Assad’s statements, even saying that he thinks it is “ludicrous that [Assad] is attempting to hide behind some sort of shell game but also some sort of claim that he doesn’t exercise authority in his own country.”
Just the day before Assad’s interview with Walters, the US had announced that Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria who was withdrawn in October over concerns about his safety, will be returning to Damascus. France’s ambassador had already returned on Monday.
ABC News Staff Monitored While In Syria
While ABC News had been assured that its journalists would be “free to go wherever you want” while in Syria, ABC news correspondent Alexander Marquardt found that he and his team were closely monitored during a visit to the village of Dael in the southern province of Dara’a where the uprising began in March.Marquardt was told that there were “armed gangs” roaming around and that army defectors were also said to be in the area. Accordingly, the ABC news team’s car was accompanied by “eight others full of uniformed and plainclothes police, as well as Syrian state media, which filmed and photographed us all day.”
Also, while interviewing the imam of the Omari mosque in Dara’a, “two heavyset men in suits and ties who said they were family friends” were present, said Marquardt. One man recorded the interview on his cell phone and also told Marquardt at one point to “change the direction of the questioning.” The Syrian state news agency Sana’s own report on ABC’s visit to Dara’a did not mention the government’s interference.
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