|Assad said a government which killed it own people would have to be "led by a crazy person" [Reuters]|
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied that he ordered the deadly crackdown on the country's almost nine-month uprising, saying that he is not in charge of the country's security forces blamed for the deaths of thousands of people.
In an interview aired on Wednesday by the US broadcaster ABC, Assad said he had not given security forces a command "to kill or be brutal".
"They're not my forces," Assad responded when asked if Syrian troops had cracked down too hard on protesters.
"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."
However, in his role as president, Assad is officially the commander of Syria's armed forces, which have reportedly used tanks, heavy weaponry, plain-clothed armed groups, and snipers to besiege dissidents in residential areas across the country.
After the interview aired, Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, said that Assad wanted to make the point that the army was not his personal "militia".
The United Nations estimates that more than 4,000 people have died in Syria since March as a consequence of the uprising and the subsequent crackdown.
As a result of the brutality, up to 25,000 members of Syria's security forces are estimated to have defected to the opposition and have taken up arms to protect civilians from the crackdown.
Tens of thousands of protesters and dissenters have been imprisoned by Syrian authorities since the uprising began in March, according to rights groups.
But Assad insisted he still had the support of the Syrian people and downplayed the violence against civilians by blaming it on "mistakes committed by some officials".
Assad's government blames "foreign plotters" for being behind the nationwide unrest.
Assad claimed that most of the people who have died in the unrest so far were his own supporters and troops, killed by what his government calls "armed thugs".
He asserted that "the majority [of Syrians] are not against" him.
"The only thing that you could be afraid of as president," he said, "is to lose the support of your people."
Regarding the charges that he is acting like a dictator, Assad said: "We never said we are a democratic country [...] It takes a long time, it takes a lot of maturity to be full fledge democratic country, but we are moving [in] that direction."
Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, said: "[Assad] insists he is confronting not peaceful protesters, but foreign plotters who want to destroy Syria and undermine it."
"It is not surprising that he is saying that, but that he's saying it after almost nine months of continued, unstoppable protests," she said.
"Despite the brutal crackdown that the government has used, the wave of protests has not stopped."
The United Nations recently released a report blaming the Syrian government for ordering crimes against humanity in its bid to crush the protest movement.
When asked about the allegations of rampant violence and torture of protesters, including children, by Syrian authorities, Assad replied: "Who said the United Nations is a credible institution?"
"I did my best to protect the people so you cannot feel guilty when you do your best. You feel sorry for the life that has been lost but you don't feel guilty when you don't kill people," he said.
Confronted by his interviewer on allegations of children being tortured, Assad said: "To be frank with you, Barbara, you don't live here.
"Every 'brute reaction' was by an individual, not by an institution, that's what you have to know," Assad said.
"There is a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There is a big difference."
Responding to the interview, Mark Toner, US state department spokesman, said Assad was trying to escape responsibility for the crackdown.
"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," Toner said.
Assad has responded to protests with promises of political reform and greater freedoms in Syria, but many activists doubt that they will bring real change as the government continues its crackdown.
"The government did take certain measures for reform. They have lifted emergency law and are going to have local elections in the coming days," our correspondent said from Beirut.
"But for protesters on the ground, it is not enough. They want real change, they want democracy, the rule of law, they want more freedoms, no more corruption and they don't want Mr Assad to rule over them any more."