Fighting Rages In Syrian Capital Damascus

The opposition in Syria delivered a powerful blow to President Bashar Assad's regime Wednesday. A bomb attack killed the country's top security officials. Renee Montagne talks to Liz Sly of The Washington Post about the ongoing clashes.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The battle for Damascus could be a turning point in the long and deadly conflict in Syria. This morning, the whereabouts of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are unknown and there are reports from Reuters and Arab news outlets that Assad has left Damascus and is now on the coast of Syria, where his Alawite minority has a stronghold. Yesterday, a bomb hit a critical target in the Syrian capital, killing the president's minister of defense, his influential brother-in-law, and a top military advisor. It was the first time that members of Assad's inner circle were killed.

To help figure out what this all means, we reached Washington Post correspondent Liz Sly, who's in neighboring Turkey in the city of Antakya. Good morning.

LIZ SLY: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So, as of this moment, and things have been moving fast these last few days, what do you know?

SLY: Well, we really don't know very much to it. So difficult to figure out what's going on in Syria. This is a country where rumors take on a life of their own. But it does seem we are approaching a very critical juncture for the Assad regime, something that's come up very unexpectedly and dramatically because of this bombing.

Somebody or someone appears to have reached up deep into the heart of his military establishment to take out some of his key people. And it is in question, now, whether the regime can survive that.

MONTAGNE: And these are some of his most important people. Tell us about those who died in this bombing.

SLY: Well, yet again, how important were they? Had they fallen out with him? These are the kinds of questions that without knowing more about what's going on inside the Syrian regime, and I don't think anyone really does know, it's just really hard to answer.

The defense minister was a Christian. He had been appointed last year. Was he really in the inner circle or was he just an appointment designed to bring Christians along? His brother-in-law is, indeed, a very close member of the family circle who had been deep in the hearts of the family for years. He's married to Assad's eldest sister. But had they fallen out?

There were rumors a few years ago in 2008 that he was on the outs, after he was suspected in another bombing attack which had happened in Damascus. So it's actually really hard to know how key these people were at this moment and what was behind this bombing.

MONTAGNE: But this is still - though regardless of the layers here - a big blow to the president?

SLY: Yes, that you have to puzzle these things out and put pieces together that you hear from here and there. But it does seem to me that there is a crisis in the hearts of the regime at the moment. Whatever happened, and whoever did it, this has got very close to Assad himself.

MONTAGNE: And what has the opposition said since this bombing?

SLY: The opposition is delighted and a little bit taken aback, as well. I mean I spoke to one opposition member who told me he hopes the FSA did it, the Free Syrian Army, but he's not sure, just because nobody thought they were that good. And they've been getting better lately, but to pull off an attack like this really is quite an extraordinary leap in their capabilities - of which we weren't yet aware.

MONTAGNE: You know, there is talk now and it's getting much louder about what comes after Assad. Part of the concern is how to secure the chemical weapons that he's widely reputed to have. What do you know about that?

SLY: Well, concerns about what comes after Assad are extremely valid because there is no diplomatic plan in place. There is no transition plan in place. There is no clear leadership of the opposition in place. There's an awful lot of tensions out there because of all these killings; I mean could easily see much, much worse bloodshed than we've seen before.

And the issue of chemical weapons just adds another scary dimension to that. There's been many rumors in the past few days that Syrian troops have been issued with gas masks and that kind of thing. It's a prelude to using chemical weapons. I don't think there's any confirmation of that either. But we do know that this is an extremely high concern of the U.S. administration, as it looks to what's going to happen in Syria in the future.

MONTAGNE: Liz Sly is a correspondent with The Washington Post, speaking to us from Ankara, Turkey. Thanks very much.

SLY: Thank you.

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