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Syria’s Assad Denies Ordering Deadly Crackdown as Sanctions Drive Down Currency

December 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad denied in a Wednesday interview that he ordered a deadly crackdown on protesters. Jeffrey Brown speaks with NPR's Deborah Amos, reporting from Beirut, about how the interview will be viewed inside Syria, the state of the uprising in Homs and the effects of sanctions on businesses and citizens.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to Syria and a presidential disclaimer amid more violence.

After nine months, the uprising against the Syrian government grinds on, deadlier by the day. But, today, in an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied there was any popular unrest. At the same time, he insisted he’s had no role in the ongoing military crackdown.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, president of Syria: They are not my forces. They are military forces belonging to the government.

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC News: OK, but…

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: I don’t own them. I am president.

BARBARA WALTERS: OK.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: I don’t own the country, so they are not my forces.

BARBARA WALTERS: No, but you have to give the order.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: No, no, no. We don’t kill our people. Nobody kill — no government in the world kill its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.

BARBARA WALTERS: Do you feel guilty?

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: I did my best to protect the people. So I cannot feel guilty when you do your best. You feel sorry for the lives that has been lost. But you don’t feel guilty when you don’t kill people.

JEFFREY BROWN: As that interview aired, new Web video purportedly showed victims of new violence in the city of Homs. Tortured and mutilated bodies were piled in the streets after an especially brutal spasm of sectarian killing and regime-led attacks.

In Washington, State Department Spokesman Mark Toner denounced Assad’s claims.

MARK TONER, State Department spokesman: Just from what happened — or what took place in the interview, he appeared utterly disconnected with the reality that is going on in his country and the brutal repression that is being carried out against the Syrian people.

It’s either disconnection, disregard, or, as he said, crazy. But what is very clear is that the Syrian security apparatus is carrying out this — a clear campaign against peaceful protesters. And that blame and responsibility or accountability with that ultimately rests on Assad and his cronies.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the United Nations now estimates more than 4,000 people, mostly protesters against the regime, have been killed in Syria.

Amid the fierce repression, more and more Syrian soldiers have defected to what is being called the Free Syrian Army. And there are growing fears of civil war.

From the outside, the United States, the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey have all instituted tough sanctions against Assad’s government. But the embattled leader still has allies, among them, China, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon.

Its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, spoke in Beirut yesterday.

HASSAN NASRALLAH, Hezbollah leader (through translator): We support the reforms in Syria, and we stand with the regime against the resistance movement. There are some people who do not want reform, security and stability in Syria, and neither civil peace nor dialogue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, U.S. diplomatic pressure against the Assad regime continued, as Secretary of State Clinton met with Syrian opposition leaders yesterday in Geneva.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Obviously, a democratic transition includes more than removing the Assad regime. It means setting Syria on the path of the rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens, regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, returned to Damascus today. He had left in October after threats to his security.

For more on the situation, I spoke earlier this evening with Deborah Amos of NPR from Beirut.

Deborah, thanks for joining us.

What was the reaction to Assad’s comments from people you were able to talk to today, and who did his intended audience seem to be?

DEBORAH AMOS, NPR: I got more reactions from people outside Syria than in Syria. People in Syria really didn’t notice much.

I think that his audience is actually not an international audience, but a domestic audience. I think the important thing for Assad is that that interview will play on Syrian state TV. He was important enough, still legitimate enough for Barbara Walters of ABC television to come all the way to Damascus to see him.

Barbara Walters had interviewed his father. That’s why they wanted her to do it. And I think that the way that those comments will be played on Syrian TV is exactly what Syrian TV has been saying all along, which the president repeated: These are armed gangs that are part of the uprising. It is regime forces who are being killed. He’s not responsible for the deaths.

It may have seemed an odd interview on the outside, but, inside, it will play to his supporters. And, for him, that’s what counts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the big question there seems to be to what degree the situation is veering towards a real civil war situation. How does it look to you from there?

DEBORAH AMOS: I know that people are talking about civil war.

But let’s keep in mind that the sectarian killing — and, mind you, what has happened in Homs this week has been horrific. But it is confined to one town. This is the most sectarianly mixed town in all of Syria. This is also a place where we now have army defectors who have found a haven in some neighborhoods inside Homs.

Up until last week, the real violence in Homs was just taking place in three or four neighborhoods. What’s happened over the past couple of days is, it’s spread to the entire city. There are tensions in other cities — certainly, in Damascus, there are — in Aleppo, there are — but nothing like what we are seeing in Homs.

Syrians will tell you both inside the country and out that they don’t see the country sliding into a civil war. They say that that’s not what this is about. This is a fight between regime supporters and anti-regime forces, and it is just a different dynamic on the street.

Homs is bad, no doubt about that. And we are sliding towards an armed rebellion in Homs, but it’s not the case in the rest of the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are you seeing or what can you tell about the impact of economic and other sanctions and pressures from outside? Does it seem to be having an impact in Syria?

DEBORAH AMOS: You know, I have not been inside the country since October. I am calling in.

And I think these latest rounds of sanctions from the Arab League has shocked Syria. Syria has always seen itself as, as they say, the beating heart of Arab nationalism. To be suspended as a member there, to have sanctions put on by other Arab states was — put people into a tailspin in Syria.

The way that you can see the sanctions taking effect is how the currency is working. It’s lost 30 percent of its value. And that is changing dramatically over the last couple of weeks. Think about this. All of a sudden, credit cards disappear. Everything has to be done in cash. Your Syrian currency is losing its value.

Let’s say you sell a home and you haven’t bought a new one. Every day you hold back, you are losing money. People are upset about that. Businesses can no longer buy anything on credit. Whatever you have in your shop, that’s all you’re going to get. You can’t import things in from Dubai because you have got no way to pay for them.

These are very tough sanctions. And you are starting to see people — when I call into Syria, people are complaining. They are beginning to feel these sanctions.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, Deborah, we reported on Senator — Secretary Clinton’s meeting with the opposition leader yesterday, Ambassador Ford coming back.

Does it look like a stepped-up American diplomatic effort there?

DEBORAH AMOS: I think it does.

These were all signals to say that, we are stepping up a diplomatic campaign. The vice president was just in Istanbul. This has now become the capital for the opposition. You have the Free Syrian Army and refugees in the south. You have more and more opposition members heading to Istanbul.

It’s the safest city for them that keeps them close to Syria. With this meeting in Geneva with the U.S. secretary of state, it’s only the second one she’s had with the opposition. It’s not exactly recognition, but it is getting very close.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Deborah Amos of NPR speaking to us from Beirut, thanks so much.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you.