Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s denial that he ordered the violent crackdown on protesters suggests that he is either a “tool” of others in the regime or he is “completely disconnected” from reality, said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
“There was no command to kill or be brutal,” Assad said yesterday in a pre-recorded television interview with ABC News in Damascus. When asked whether his security forces acted too harshly, he said: “They are not my forces. They are military forces that belong to the government. I don’t own them.”
Toner said Assad’s claim “either says that he’s completely lost any power that he had within Syria -- that he’s simply a tool -- or that he’s completely disconnected with reality.”
“What is very clear is that the Syrian security apparatus is carrying out this -- a clear campaign against peaceful protesters,” the State Department spokesman said at the daily news briefing. Responsibility for the violence and bloodshed “ultimately rests on Assad and his cronies,” he said.
The United Nations estimated on Dec. 1 that more than 4,000 people have been killed since March, when protesters began taking to the streets inspired by movements that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Tens of thousands have been arrested and more than 14,000 are reported to be in detention since unrest began, according to the UN.
‘Turning Against Him’
Economic and political pressure has been increasing on Assad to end the violence, which risks moving Syria to a civil war as soldiers defect and take up arms against the government, with increasing reports of attacks against military and infrastructure targets.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency today reported a blast at a pipeline in the central Homs region, where some of the biggest clashes in recent weeks has occurred. Al Jazeera television said the pipeline caught fire after the explosion.
Assad “is turning the senior officers against him,” Muhy al-Deen al-Lathiqani, a member of the Syrian opposition, said after the president’s comments were aired. “They are saying now that he is abandoning us by not taking responsibility and escaping it all,” he said in an interview with Al Arabiya.
The Syrian president may have little sway over elements of the security forces, including “members of the family who are not necessarily going to listen to him, and also the old guard left from his father’s day,” said Mustafa Alani, director of national security at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.
‘Dual Military Structure’
“Syria has a dual military structure, those that protect the regime and those that protect the state, and this is not under his control,” Alani said in a phone interview. “You can’t rule out the possibility of civil war” with the two branches of the security forces on opposing sides, he said.
Assad’s family and many top military officials are members of the Alawite sect, affiliated with Shia Islam, which is a minority in Syria and whose privileged status may be at risk should a change of government create a state dominated by the Sunni majority.
The Arab League Dec. 6 said it would maintain its economic sanctions on Syria, rebuffing a demand by its government to remove the measures as one of several conditions for admitting monitors. In a show of support for Syrian protesters, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Geneva Dec. 6 with the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups.
The Local Coordination Committee in Syria, a network of activists, has called for a “dignity strike” and civil disobedience on Dec. 12, according to its website.
Assad said most of the people who have been killed in protests and fighting since March were his supporters and troops and the dead include 1,100 soldiers and police officers. He asked for the UN to send “concrete evidence” to support allegations that Syria has committed war crimes.
“We are talking about false allegations and a distortion of reality,” Assad said when asked about the UN findings. “Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?”
There was no command to kill or be brutal, said Assad, who conceded that some members of the armed forces did exceed limits. He said those soldiers were punished for doing so.
“Every ‘brute reaction’ was by an individual, not by an institution, that’s what you have to know,” he said. “There is a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials.”
U.S. Comments ‘Regrettable’
Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a televised news conference in Damascus yesterday that Assad was making no attempt in the interview to absolve himself of any responsibility. “It is regrettable and not normal that the American State Department used the president’s comments out of context,” he said.
The Arab League on Dec. 3 ordered a freeze on the assets of 19 Syrian officials, a ban on their travel and a reduction in flights to Syria if the government refuses to admit international monitors, release political prisoners and end its crackdown on protests. The punitive measures against Syria are the first the Arab League has imposed on a member state since its formation in 1945.
The U.S. and the European Union have their own sanctions against Syria, while the UN Security Council wasn’t able to pass any punitive measures after Russia and China objected to a resolution condemning the violence in October.
Assad said the threat of sanctions doesn’t worry him.
“We’re not isolated,” he said. “You have people coming and going, you have trade, you have everything.”
When asked whether he regretted the violence, the Syrian president said: “You feel sorry for the lives that have been lost. But you don’t feel guilty when you don’t kill people.”
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