BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad distanced himself Wednesday from the bloodshed in his country, saying he never ordered the suppression of demonstrations, even as activists reported dozens of tanks and hundreds of soldiers converging on the central city of Homs, where residents said violence was at its peak since anti-government protests began nine months ago.
“No government in the world kills its people unless it is led by a crazy person,” Assad told ABC’s Barbara Walters in an interview in Damascus, Syria’s capital, adding that he had no guilt about the country’s growing death toll because he had not killed people. “They’re not my forces,” he said of the Syrian soldiers and police.
The United Nations estimates that at least 4,000 people have been killed in what began as a peaceful movement for reform but is increasingly taking the form of clashes involving soldiers who have defected, armed protesters and security forces, often fueled by sectarian differences.
In Homs, whose population includes Sunni Muslims, Christians and members of the Alawite faith espoused by the president and many officials, activists reported that more than 30 people were executed in public Monday by security forces and pro-
government shabiha, or armed groups, and that their bodies were dumped in neighborhoods across the city.
“Some were Sunni, and some were Alawite,” said one activist in Homs who gave his name only as Abu Rami because he fears for his safety. He said government forces were trying to create the impression of sectarian killing going on among civilians, saying, “They did this to make tension.”
But he said that although thousands of the soldiers who have defected, known as the Free Syrian Army, were conducting operations in Homs to protect civilians, no civilians had taken up arms.
Abu Rami added that he had seen more than 50 tanks and 60 trucks full of soldiers converging on the city, an account corroborated by other activists in the area, who said that there was an increased security presence in the city and that the violence was the worst they had seen there.
The Syrian government controls journalists’ movements tightly, and it was not possible to independently verify individual claims.
Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Avaaz said sectarian violence, which has been reported in Homs for several months, had escalated in recent weeks.
Tarif said that there was a “sectarian basis” to the violence but added that behind that lay “family vendettas.” The Alawite shabiha groups in Homs are recruited from within the city, he said, so when they commit violence against civilians, who often are Sunnis, they are recognized, and the victims’ families take revenge.
The sharp increase in violence continued Wednesday, according to an activist who spoke, via Skype, on the condition of anonymity. He described a “terrifying atmosphere,” with sounds of explosives and automatic weapon fire continuing through the night. Mosques had been torched and kidnappings were on the rise, he said.
The lethal surge coincided with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s meeting Tuesday with the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups positioning themselves as Syria’s legitimate representatives, as international pressure on the government increases from Arab nations, Turkey and the West.
Council spokesman Ausama Monajed said that Clinton’s main concern was the council’s plan to ensure that Syria’s minorities, which include Alawites, Christians and ethnic Kurds, would be safe under its plans for a transitional government.
Monajed described the meeting as a “political recognition” of the council, although something short of a recognition that it represents the Syrian people. The council does not have a formal relationship with the members of the Free Syrian Army, he said, adding that this would be discussed at an upcoming conference.
Along with activists within Syria, Monajed mocked the president’s words in the ABC interview. “This proves how delusional he is,” Monajed said. “By law he is the commander in chief, and he will be tried for every human life lost.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said of Assad’s disavowal of responsibility, “It either says that he’s completely lost any power that he had within Syria, that he’s simply a tool or that he’s completely disconnected with reality.”
“It’s either disconnection, disregard or, as he said, crazy,” Toner said.
Fordham is a special correspondent.