STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's follow up now on what appears to be a serious blow to the regime in Syria today. A blast repeatedly killed the country's defense chief, the brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad and wounded other top officials. This explosion, we're told, occurred inside the tightly guarded national security headquarters in Damascus. To sort out what we know, or don't know, about this incident so far, we've called Neil MacFarquar. He's a correspondent for the New York Times. He's in Beirut. Welcome back to the program.
NEIL MACFARQUAR: Thank you. Glad to be here.
INSKEEP: How much do you know about this incident and how do you know it?
MACFARQUAR: Dowoud Rajha was the minister of defense, and he was confirmed killed. And the other person is the deputy chief of the military staff. That's Assef Shawkat. And that is a more powerful person 'cause he's also President's Assad's brother-in-law. And those are the only two people that the official state TV has confirmed dead. From the very beginning of this uprising 16 months ago, it's always been very difficult to report on Syria because most of us are kept out. And so we're reporting from a distance.
So, details of who was killed or injured are still murky. But what seems to have happened was that a suicide bomber blew himself up either in or near a meeting of the crisis group, which is a sort of the elite group of generals and military chiefs who have been the core group of advisors for the president in putting down the uprising.
INSKEEP: The implication here, if the report is accurate, is that someone got very deep inside the Syrian security service here.
MACFARQUAR: It seems that way. I mean, it wasn't in a terribly important building. It's kind of a little nondescript building not far from the U.S. ambassador's residence, but, you know, it was an important group of people, and the initial reports, again unconfirmed, are was that it was a bodyguard of the minister of defense.
INSKEEP: Who, what, detonated a suicide bomb?
MACFARQUAR: Who blew himself up, yeah, sorry.
INSKEEP: So, how damaging could this be to Assad?
MACFARQUAR: Well, you know, everyone had been sort of looking for how this regime can sustain itself, and obviously this is a group of men who have been at the core of the security solution. Assad keeps saying, I'm going to accept the political transition and so forth, while continuing to try and put down the opposition with force. And this was the people who ran the force. It's a country where all officials are deeply suspicious of each. There's a lot of intelligence agencies spying on each other as much as on the public.
So, you're not going to be able to find necessarily people to replace them. And, of course, the opposition is going to be looking for weakness, and I think it's almost as much a psychological game as it is a physical one because obviously it's a big psychological blow to be able to hit right in downtown Damascus, right at the center of power. And that may give the opposition a real boost. More people will join, we'll see defections. It's much too early to tell, of course, but it just sort of begins to shake the whole edifice and, you know, the only way they can try and get around it or try and overcome that is to project power and force, which is unclear they can.
INSKEEP: Just speaking as a longtime observer here, Neil, if you look at this incident and other recent incidents; defections from the Syrian government side, do you feel like the situation is shifting in some meaningful way?
MACFARQUAR: Yeah, I mean, you sort of, you know, they try and project normality and we're in control and this is just a bunch of terrorist gangs inspired by foreigners attacking us. But, you know, it's like a wave getting higher and higher on a little island, and, you know, now they just got a big wave that kind of got them all wet. So, it's not like everyone's going to head for the exits 'cause of this, but it makes the smaller and smaller group around the president who are supporting him and also who he can trust.
INSKEEP: Neil MacFarquar, the New York Times in Beirut. Thanks very much.
MACFARQUAR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.