In an echo of recently deposed Arab strongmen, Assad said he was introducing reforms and elections, starting with local elections this year. The vote on his presidency isn't scheduled until 2014, a wait that may be too long for Syrian dissidents. But the elections can't be rushed, Assad said.
"We never said we are democratic country… We are moving forward in reforms, especially in the last nine months… It takes a long time, it takes a lot of maturity to be full fledged democracy."
Assad said the threat of sanctions did not worry him. "We've been under sanctions for the last 30, 35 years. It's not something new."
Despite the decades of economic sanctions, "We're not isolated. You have people coming and going, you have trade, you have everything," he said.
Walters asked Assad if he regretted the violence that has wracked his country, left thousands dead and make Syria a pariah state.
"I did my best to protect the people," he said. "I cannot feel guilty when you do your best. You feel sorry for the lives that have been lost. But you don't feel guilty when you don't kill people. So it's not about guilty."
(Editor's note: Due to a transcription error, the initial version of this story misstated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad quote in response to Barbara Walters question about Syrian forces allegedly going from house to house, arresting children. His actual quote was: "To be frank with you, Barbara, you don't live here. How did you know all this...? This...you have to be here to see.")