BEIRUT // Syria's President Bashar Al Assad has denied responsibility for the deaths of thousands of his people in a popular uprising against his regime, distancing himself from the actions of his armed forces.
"We don't kill our people," Mr Al Assad told American ABC Television in an interview that aired yesterday, his most extensive since the revolt began in March. "No government in the world (kills) its people unless it is led by a crazy person."
The United Nations says more than 4,000 people have died in the government's crackdown.
Mr Al Assad told ABC's Barbara Walters, who travelled to Damascus for the interview, that he had not issued any commands "to kill or be brutal".
In his role as president, Mr Al Assad is the commander of Syria's armed forces. However, in the interview he claimed: "They're not my forces. They are military forces (who) belong to the government. I don't own them. I'm president. I don't own the country."
Still, Mr Assad, 46, insisted he had the support of ordinary Syrians, and said he was not afraid of meeting the same fate as other leaders deposed during the Arab Spring, such as Libya's Muammar Qaddafi who was killed after his capture in October.
“The only thing that you could be afraid of as president (is) to lose the support of your people,” Mr Al Assad said.
“If you don’t have the support of the people you cannot be in this position. Syria is not easy ... it is a very difficult country to govern if you don’t have the public support.”
Mr Al Assad laughed slightly during the interview when asked if he felt guilty about the bloodshed.
“I did my best to protect the people,” he said. “You cannot feel guilty when you do your best ... you do not feel guilty when you don’t kill people.
“You feel sorry for the lives that have been lost but you don’t feel guilty.”
Mr Al Assad faces increasing diplomatic and economic isolation over his handling of the uprising that threatens to plunge Syria into civil war.
The leaders of Turkey and Jordan have called for him to leave and the Arab League, the EU and the United States have imposed a raft of sanctions aimed at isolating the country and its leadership.
The Arab League’s sanctions and suspension of Libya’s membership is the first time the bloc has enforced such punitive measures against a member state.
Its measures include an immediate freeze on transactions with Damascus and its central bank and on Syrian regime assets in Arab countries.
Moscow, the main arms supplier to Damascus, refuses to join the chorus of condemnation.
Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevents the work of independent media, making witness reports and accounts from activist groups a key channel of information.
Amateur videos posted online have shown police and pro-regime militias opening fire on protesters.
The US state department spokesman Mark Toner said Mr Al Assad was trying to shirk responsibility.
“I find it ludicrous that he 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,” Mr Toner said.
Mr Al Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, insists extremists pushing a foreign agenda to destabilise Syria are behind the uprising, not true reform-seekers aiming to reform the country’s autocratic political system.
But activists and members of the opposition baulk at those accusations, saying they are demanding legitimate freedoms after more than 40 years of repression by the Assad dynasty.
In the early days of the uprising, Mr Al Assad offered some promises of reform – but at the same time he unleashed the military to crush the protests with tanks and snipers.
The bloodshed has pushed many once-peaceful protesters to take up arms.
Army dissidents who sided with the protesters have also grown bolder, fighting back against regime forces and even attacking military bases and raising fears of a civil war.
Syria has so far refused to honour a peace deal with the Arab League that requires its forces to return to their barracks, political prisoners to be freed and the government to negotiate with the opposition.