BEIRUT, Lebanon - Syrian President Bashar al-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 United Nations says has killed 4,000 people since March, Assad laughed off a question about whether he felt any guilt.
"I did my best to protect the people," he told ABC's Barbara Walters during an interview at the presidential palace in 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 ophthalmologist 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, 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 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 those 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 underlings, 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 that 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 city, one of the darkest moments in the modern Middle East.
Since March, Assad has offered a few promises of reform, while unleashing the military to crush the protests with tanks and snipers.