Syria’s opposition said Bashar al-Assad can’t escape responsibility for the killing of protesters and should quit to spare the country further bloodshed.
The president, who denied in an ABC News interview that he gave orders for a violent crackdown, “has forgotten that he’s the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” said Samir Nashar, a member of the executive bureau of the Syrian National Council. “It’s strange that a leader of a nation says he doesn’t know what’s taking place. If that is the case, then let him step down and relieve the country and the people.”
Assad told ABC that he doesn’t “own” the country’s security forces, dismissed United Nations estimates that at least 4,000 people have died since unrest began in March, and attributed violence against protesters to “mistakes committed by some officials” rather than a policy of violent repression.
The U.S., European Union and Arab League are applying increasing economic and political pressure on Assad to end the crackdown, which risks tipping Syria into a civil war as soldiers defect and take up arms against the government. There are increasing reports of attacks against military and infrastructure targets.
A pipeline carrying crude to a refinery in the central Homs region, where some of the biggest clashes of recent weeks have occurred, was attacked today, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported, saying a terrorist group was responsible.
Al Jazeera television showed footage of a massive cloud of black smoke in the area. It also showed crowds chanting anti-government slogans at a nearby funeral of five people killed during the crackdown.
‘Not My Forces’
“They are not my forces,” Assad told ABC. “They are military forces that belong to the government. I don’t own them.”
The comment suggests Assad is either a “tool” of others in the regime or he is “completely disconnected” from reality, said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner. Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Assad was making no attempt to absolve himself of any responsibility, and that Toner had “used the president’s comments out of context.”
There may be truth in Assad’s remarks as he probably has 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.
Nashar accused the government of seeking to enflame sectarian feelings through violence. In Homs, “there are signs of a civil war which the regime is encouraging,” he said. “You have government thugs who are kidnapping and arresting people from Homs randomly and their corpses appear the next day in Alawite neighborhoods.”
The UN estimates that tens of thousands have been arrested since the start of the protests, inspired by movements that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while more than 14,000 are reported to remain in detention.
The Arab League said this week that it will maintain economic sanctions on Syria, rebuffing a demand by Assad’s government to remove the measures as one of several conditions for admitting Arab monitors. The U.S. and European Union have also imposed sanctions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the Syrian National Council in Geneva on Dec. 6.
Assad told ABC that he’s not concerned by sanctions, which he said haven’t isolated Syria. He asked for the UN to send “concrete evidence” to support allegations that Syria has committed war crimes, which he called a “distortion of reality.”
The question of Assad’s personal role in the Syrian decision-making system is less important than that system’s use of “a level of brutality that is unacceptable for the whole world,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
“The government in Syria has not really come to grips with this rebellion in a very effective way,” he said. “That’s why they’re in such a corner now.”