Bashar al-Assad isn't doing himself any favors. The Syrian leader is being pilloried for his unbelievable, tone-deaf remarks during a sit-down in Damascus with ABC's Barbara Walters. During the rare, exclusive interview, which was broadcast Wednesday, Walters confronted Assad about the well-documented violent crackdown on anti-government protesters, his growing isolation from neighboring countries and the global community, and how he feels about his widely perceived transformation from "fresh pragmatic leader" to "dictator and a tyrant." (Watch a clip below.) Here, four takeaways from the much-discussed interview:
1. Assad disavows any responsibility
Assad told Walters that he never ordered a crackdown, and even denied that one occurred. "Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government," including 1,100 soldiers and police officers, he said. Sure, there was the occasional "brute reaction" committed "by an individual" officer, but "there was no command to kill or be brutal." He also distanced himself from the military, asserting: "They are not my forces, they are military forces that belong to the government... I don't own them." In a final washing-of hands, Assad says, "You don't feel guilty when you don't kill people."
2. And nobody believes him
This "bizarre display of innocence by Assad" would be laughable if his brutality wasn't so tragic, says Josef Olmert at The Huffington Post. If Assad isn't responsible for the "piles of bodies" security forces are dumping in the streets, who is? Indeed, "Assad's was a pathetic performance," says Danielle Pletka at The American. He kept up his denials even when presented with a damning United Nations report — the U.N. is not "a credible institution," he replied — and well-documented cases of vicious government murder.
3. Walters is facing some blowback, too
"Walters did confront Assad with evidence of his brutality," gently, but she blew a "rare opportunity" to truly "force a world-historical villain to answer for his crimes," says John Cook at Gawker. Whether her "soft spot for Assad" dates back to her 2008 vacation with him, or some other reason, Walters needs to "step aside and hand the microphone to someone capable of recognizing evil when it invites them to dinner." The real damage wasn't the questions — Assad "doesn't care how he plays to TV audiences," says Lee Smith at The Weekly Standard. It's that a "celebrity journalist" like Walters "provided a platform for a giggling murderer."
4. Assad is "crazy"
Perhaps the most memorable quote from the interview is Assad's claim that "we don't kill our people.... No government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person." Well, "it's now clear that Assad meets his own definition of crazy," says Andrew Tabler at CNN. Crazy or not, says State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner, Assad "appeared utterly disconnected with the reality that's going on in his country."