Assad's Top Defense Aides Killed In Bomb Attack

Three top aides to Syrian President Bashar Assad were killed Wednesday in a bomb attack in Damascus. Robert Siegel speaks with Andrew J. Tabler, author of the book In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria, about those killed and what the attack means for both the Assad regime and the opposition. Tabler is also a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. At least three top aides to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were killed today in a bomb attack on a high-level security meeting in Damascus. Among the dead are Syria's defense minister and deputy defense minister, who was the president's brother-n-law. The rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it placed bombs inside the highly secured meeting space.

Today's violence follows three days of fighting in the capital between government and opposition forces, fighting that continued throughout the day in suburbs around Damascus. At a news conference at the Pentagon this morning, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said what's happening in Syria represents a real escalation in the fighting.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control. And for that reason, it's extremely important that the international community working with other countries that have concerns in that area have to bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what's right, to step down and to allow for that peaceful transition.

SIEGEL: That's Defense Secretary Panetta speaking today. We'll have more on diplomatic efforts to address the situation in Syria in a moment. First, to Andrew Tabler for some analysis. He's author of the book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." Welcome to the program once again.

ANDREW J. TABLER: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And from what we know of this bombing, how important, how big a blow is this to the Assad regime?

TABLER: It's a big blow in the sense that you have one of Assad's core regime members, Assef Shawkat, his brother-in-law, being killed as well as the defense minister and the former defense minister. So this is a huge milestone in Syria in terms of the uprising and the revolution as a whole. The question is that really a, you know, a milestone to what? And we'll have to watch here in the coming days the regime's reaction to this and how they decide to get out of it militarily and politically.

SIEGEL: Well, if I were Bashar al-Assad, I assume that I would want to demonstrate to my camp now that I'm not about to abandon them and hop a plane to Russia. If that were my motive, what would I do now?

TABLER: I think what's likely to happen, unfortunately, if Bashar sticks to his playbook, is that they will likely try and up the violence. And this is where the Obama administration will be in a real bind. If they start using fixed-wing aircraft or they start using more shelling or they even, God forbid, start using some of the chemical weapons in the country, which a lot of those in the opposition have feared, but until now we've sort of discounted some of those claims, this gets us into another realm, signaling to Assad very clearly that this is a red line will be an important part of American diplomacy and Western diplomacy in general in the coming days.

SIEGEL: We're all wondering what the regime will do. What does this say about the opposition, that they were able to do this and that they did this?

TABLER: It's unclear who was responsible. I mean, it's definitely those who were opposing the Assad regime. But is it really from the opposition as we know them, those protesting on the street or the Free Syrian Army or any other variant? It's just not clear. It would seem to me that in order to get that bomb in that room, to kill this, what they call the crisis cell, those who deal with the crackdown in the country, you would need some knowledge of how the regime functions, who's there and when they meet, and that opens up other possibilities.

SIEGEL: Yeah, this would be, if that's what happened, a case of penetrating the high command of responding to this uprising.

TABLER: Right. Or there are just simply a lot of divisions inside the Assad regime about what to do. What's interesting is until now we focused on, you know, getting rid of the Assad family and those at the top of the regime. This actually targets those that are carrying out the crisis response. Now what does that do? Does that push things towards the opposition in general and those who oppose the Assad regime? Or does it lead the Assad regime at the very top to institute a full-on military crackdown that tries to snuff this out. We'll know here in the coming few days.

SIEGEL: You mentioned fears among the rebel groups, the opposition, that the regime might use chemical weapons. We've heard such fears also expressed by people in Britain, in the U.S. and in Israel. What are we talking about? Is there a large and sophisticated arsenal that the regime could use?

TABLER: Absolutely. Syria has one of the largest chemical and biological weapons stockpiles in the Middle East. This is well-known. It's not even a source of controversy, and that's what has a lot of people worried - up to 45 different sites throughout the country. And, of course, until very recently, these have been under strict control by the Assad regime. Now, there are reports that they're moving them to safety or to different areas for unclear reasons. In any case, it adds a degree of sort of severeness to this crisis that's going to force and, I think, has forced the Obama administration to make some pretty stern warnings to Damascus over the last few days.

SIEGEL: Andrew Tabler, thank you very much for talking with us.

TABLER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Andrew Tabler is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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