Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a rare interview broadcast Wednesday that he never ordered the brutal suppression of the uprising in his country and insisted only a "crazy person" would kill his own people.
Apparently trying to distance himself from violence that the U.N. says has killed 4,000 people since March, Assad laughed off a question about whether he feels any guilt.
"I did my best to protect the people," he told ABC's Barbara Walters during an interview at the presidential palace in the Syrian capital, Damascus. "You feel sorry for the life that has been lost, but you don't feel guilty when you don't kill people."
"No government in the world (kills) its people unless it is led by a crazy person," Assad added in the interview, which was conducted in English. Assad, who trained as an opthamologist in Britain, speaks the language fluently.
The interview offered a rare glimpse into the character of the 46-year-old Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000. His brother _ widely regarded as the chosen heir _ had died in a car crash years earlier.
Assad, who commands Syria's armed forces, has sealed off the country to most outsiders while clinging to the allegation that the uprising is the work of foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers aiming to open the authoritarian political system.
The United Nations and others dismiss that entirely, blaming the regime for widespread killings, rape and torture. Witnesses and activists inside Syria describe brutal repression, with government forces firing on unarmed protesters and conducting terrifying, house-to-house raids in which families are dragged from their homes in the night.
"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."
He said some Syrian troops may have behaved badly, but they faced punishment if so. He also said most of the people who died in the unrest were his own supporters and troops, slain by terrorists and gangsters _ an allegation disputed by most outside observers.
The comment that Syrian troops are "not my forces" raised flags in Syria and abroad because it suggests Assad might ultimately try to lay the blame on his inferiors, analysts said.
"Those around him got the message, which is he could abandon them at any moment," said Muhieddine Lathkani, a Syrian opposition figure based in Britain.
After the interview aired, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Assad wanted Walters to understand the military was not his personal "militia."
Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria expert at George Washington University, said Assad's interview was both "defiant and delusional."
"He is the commander in chief of the armed forces," Jouejati said. "To say that the security forces do not have orders to kill or to brutalize the people _ that it's maybe the mistake of some bad apples _ is not a response."
But he said stonewalling was not a surprise, given the regime's actions in the past. Jouejati pointed to Assad's uncle, Rifaat, believed to be a driving force in the 1982 massacre of thousands in Hama, one of the darkest moments in the modern Middle East.
"Bashar Assad said he is not responsible, and we heard his uncle, Rifaat Assad, say he was not responsible for Hama. So after 41 years the Assad family is not responsible for anything," Jouejati said. "If he is not responsible then we don't know what he is doing in the presidency."
White House spokesman Jay Carney strongly disputed Assad's claim that he had not ordered the crackdown.
"It's just not credible," Carney said. "The world has witnessed what has happened in Syria. 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."
Since March, Assad has offered a few promises of reform, while at the same time unleashing the military to crush the protests with tanks and snipers.
Sanctions from the European Union, the Arab League, and the emerging regional power Turkey are squeezing Syria's ailing economy.
On Wednesday, the central bank said the exchange rate was 54 Syrian pounds to the dollar, a 17 percent drop since the uprising began and the lowest level in years. Residents in Damascus said the price reached 58 pounds to the dollar in the black market Wednesday.
If the economy crumbles, it could spell doom for the regime.
Assad has spent years shifting the country away from the socialism espoused by his father, which helped boost a new and vibrant merchant class that transformed Syria's economic landscape _ even as the regime's political trappings remained unchanged.
So far, the monied classes have clung to the sidelines of the uprising. But if the economic squeeze reaches them, it could be a game-changer for the regime.
The relentless bloodshed has pushed many once-peaceful protesters to take up arms. Army dissidents who sided with the protests have also grown bolder, fighting back against regime forces and raising fears of a civil war.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, already has characterized the conflict in Syria as a civil war.
"Who said the United Nations is a credible institution?" Assad said in Wednesday's interview, when Walters asked him about allegations of widespread violence and torture.
The violence continued Wednesday. Security forces killed nine people, including seven in the flashpoint city of Homs and two in Idlib province. Hundreds of regime forces also stormed a student demonstration in Aleppo, activists said.
The conflict also has exacerbated the country's ethnic divisions.
Syria's 22 million people are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the tiny Alawite sect, which comprises about 10 percent of the population.
The political domination by Alawites has bred seething resentments, which Assad tried to tamp down by enforcing the strictly secular ideology of his Baath Party.
But as the popular uprising surged, and Sunni army conscripts refused to fire on civilians, Assad called heavily upon his Alawite power base to crush the resistance, feeding sectarian tensions of the kind that fueled civil wars in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.
Still, Assad insisted he had the support of his people, something Libya's Moammar Gadhafi also claimed in a televised interview with Western reporters even as rebel forces gained strength and fervor. Libya's eight-month civil war ended with Gadhafi's capture and killing in late October.
Assad says he was not afraid of meeting the same fate.
"The only thing that you could be afraid of as president," he said, "is to lose the support of your people."
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue