WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2011 -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's denial of responsibility for ordering a brutal crackdown against Syrian protesters in recent months drew strong rebukes from international organizations and the State Department today.
In Barbara Walters' exclusive interview, Assad conceded only that some members of his armed forces went too far in their actions, but not at his command.
"Every 'brute reaction' was by an individual, not by an institution, that's what you have to know," Assad told Walters. "There is a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There is a big difference."
"But you have to give the order," Walters responded in the interview.
"On no one's command," Assad said. "There was no command to kill or be brutal."
Human rights organization Amnesty International today disputed the notion that Assad is not responsible for the crackdown by Syrian forces, saying in a statement:
"Under Article 103 of the Syrian Constitution [Assad] is supreme commander of the armed forces and should not pretend that he has no responsibility for them and their abuses. If he was serious about wanting the security forces not to shoot at protesters or otherwise commit abuses and crimes he should have been saying so clearly and publicly on Syrian TV to his people and the security forces themselves – and then taking steps to investigate what he calls their 'mistakes' – what others perceive to be crimes against humanity – and to prosecute the perpetrators."
United Nations Secretary-General spokesperson Martin Nesirky agreed, saying, "The Head of State of any country, including Syria, has ultimate responsibility for the protection of the population. And I think that that's quite clear." The U.N. recently estimated that the death toll in Syria has exceeded 4,000 people.
ABC News' Kirit Radia reports that the State Department also reacted strongly today to Assad's interview with Walters, saying the Syrian president appeared "completely disconnected with reality."
When asked if he thought Assad was crazy, State Dept. deputy spokesperson Mark Toner said, "Just from what happened or what took place in the interview, he appeared utterly disconnected with the reality that's going on in his country and the brutal repression that's being carried out against the Syrian people. It's either disconnection, disregard or, as he said, crazy. I don't know."
In response to Assad's claim that he did not order any violence against Syrian protesters, Toner added, "It either says that he's completely lost any power that he -- that he had within Syria, that he's simply a tool or that he's completely disconnected with reality."
In an interview on "This Week" in May, King Abdullah of Jordan told "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour shortly after the Syrian uprising began that he had no doubt that Assad was still in charge of neighboring Syria, saying he was "calling the shots." Abdullah has since called on Assad to step down from power.
AMANPOUR: "Is Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, in charge?"
KING ABDULLAH: "I've talked to him on several occasions to see what Jordan can do to bring stability and, obviously, calm to -- to Syria. And from my discussions with him and from what I hear, he is in charge, yes. And he is calling the shots."
AMANPOUR: "So you think all that we're seeing on the streets right now is happening under his direction?"
KING ABDULLAH: "Well, as I said, I believe that he is in charge…"
And in an interview on "This Week" in August, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford condemned the Syrian military crackdown against the civilian uprising in the city of Hama, calling the violence there "grotesque" and "abhorrent."
"What the government is doing now is, it's literally going house to house and it's rounding up people," Ford said. "There is no due process. There's a lot of violence. There's shooting… It's frightful. It's abominable."
Ambassador Ford returned to Syria today, a month after he was recalled from the country over concerns for his safety.