Editor’s Note: On July 19, 2012, Tamara Wittes was interviewed by Tom Ashbrook on NPR’s On Point, along with Clarissa Ward, foreign correspondent for CBS News, Ausama Monajed, a member of the Syrian National Council and the executive director of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter.
Tom Ashbrook: Tamara Wittes, what’s your interpretation of what happened operationally yesterday– are you as confident? Correspondents are kind of holding back here. Ausama says we planned it, we did it, there’s more to come. How do you see it, Tamara?
Tamara Wittes: I think it’s clear that the rebel forces were using this operation in Damascus yesterday, both the bombing, if indeed it was coordinated with the rest of the offensive, and attacks against Syrian security forces on the ground, to try and create a sense of inevitability about the fall of the regime, and also to shake the confidence of military commanders and of others in Assad’s circle about their own survivability, perhaps forcing a moment of decision for them about whether it’s time to push Assad and his family out in order to save their own skins. There’s no question that these operations put increased pressure on the regime, but I think what we’re seeing today in terms of the military response in Damascus is that the regime intends to keep on fighting.
Ashbrook: Do you think there’s any inevitable outcome to all of the fighting we’ve seen over these months, Tamara? Is the end of this story inevitable, one way or another?
Wittes: I think there’s no question that the regime is not going to be able to hold on. It will never be able to govern Syria in the way it did in the past. What we might be seeing now is the beginning of the endgame for the Bashar al-Assad regime, but I don’t think that necessarily means an endgame for the crisis and more particularly for the violence on the ground. It’s going to matter a great deal how this regime falls. If people at the top levels decide to push Assad and his family out or sit him down and tell him that the moment of truth has arrived, that kind of decapitation will at least hold the functioning of the state together and give Alawites who have been supporting Assad someone who can represent their interests in a negotiation with the opposition. If, however, they fight until the bitter end, I think it’s quite possible that, as Clarissa suggested, we might see fragmentation and what’s left of the Syrian army turning into a sort of Alawite militia in the hills.
I think it's unusual for the chief of staff to go on a trip, particularly on a trip this long. The chief of staff is usually more of a chief operating officer in the White House itself, and normally when your principal—whether it's the president himself or the head of Cabinet agency—goes abroad, you have his deputy and those folks staying behind to help manage operations in his absence.