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In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria Paperback – September 1, 2011
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“A fascinating odyssey through the maze of modern Syria. Full of wisdom, optimism, and caution.” —Jon Alterman, Director of the Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
“Riveting . . . a compelling insider’s account of life under the Assad regime.” —Steven Heydemann, United States Institute of Peace
About the Author
Andrew Tabler is a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and one of the most sought-after voices on contemporary Syria. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs. His opinion is regularly sought by CNN, NBC, and PBS. After seven years of living and working under Assad’s regime, Tabler left Damascus for Beirut.
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"In the Lion's Den" offers an unparalleled view on life in modern Syria: the oppression of citizens and foreigners, the corruption, the changes to the system under Bashar, the "Damascus Declaration" and the rise of the opposition, and significantly, Syria's relations with the United States. Tabler makes clear that one cannot fully understand the situations in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and the wider Middle East without having a firm grasp on Syrian politics and Syria's foreign endeavors.
Tabler's privileged position as an adviser to an NGO under the patronage of the President's wife - we learn that some consider deceased President Hafez al Assad's wife to still be the "First Lady" - allows him unprecedented access to the powerful actors defining Syrian life from 2001-11. He meticulously charts the specific dates on which events occurred that shaped the history of a nation and region.
Bashar Assad's reign begins with hopes for reform and change, but positive political change never comes. Repressive laws written generations ago remain on the books, and even Asma al-Assad's NGOs exist in legal limbo. Tabler slowly comes to understand the myriad forms of power the state exerts on its population and the factional balancing act the president must play to remain in power during particularly challenging times.
Tabler chronicles the plethora of techniques the regime uses to psychologically imprison its population and to keep foreign powers guessing. As in Ryszard Kapuscinski's works, Tabler elucidates the seemingly trivial but critical details that keep the Syrian people constantly guessing. Casual looks or the lack thereof from the President's wife reveal an employee's closeness to power. Gossip is disproportionately influential. Cryptic comments from powerful individuals cause nervous breakdowns.
Despite having myriad sources within the regime, Tabler is still left unknowing. In experience after experience, Tabler realizes that one of the most powerful instruments the regime uses to control its population is to leave people in the dark. Knowledge is rarely forthcoming. Rumors and conspiracy theories abound with claims that an "old guard" is preventing Bashar from taking action or trying to overthrow him, or that certain figures close to Bashar - like Assef Shawkat and Maher al-Assad - have enough power within an alleged close-knit power circle that he cannot oppose them.
Regardless of the Sopranos-like drama within the ruling family, the people are left in what Tabler describes as "the Blackness." Incredible violence occurs, assassinations take place, officials are replaced, but no one knows why. It is amazing that Tabler survived in that environment for so long - likely a testament to his canny reading of the subtleties of the regime, but he finally finds himself unwelcome in the country that hosted him for nearly a decade.
Despite political stasis, Syria dramatically changes under Bashar's reign. A demographic boom in the 1980s, a drop in oil production and smuggling, US sanctions, the end of control over Lebanon - a regime cash cow, and a free trade treaty with Turkey all force the regime to make dramatic economic changes simply to stay fiscally afloat. Tabler masterfully describes how President Assad uses the new economy to empower himself over other state actors, becoming the chief arbitrator in a system without rule of law and predicated on bribery.
The Bush and Obama Administrations craft policies to counter the regime's deleterious effect on Middle East stability succeeding in some areas and making mistakes along the way. Tabler provides sound advice to policymakers for future encounters with Syria, and helps his audience understand the political, religious, and economic conditions that led to the Syrian uprisings during the Arab Spring.
"In the Lion's Den" is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding Syria during the 2000s.
Andrew Tabler's account of his time in Syria between 2001 and 2008 is refreshing -- relative to the reams of Orientalist trite other Western authors have published about the Middle East and North Africa -- in that he actually spent years in the region getting to know the place, first studying Arabic and working as a journalist in Cairo and later traversing the MENA for the Oxford Business Group writing country investment reports, before eventually basing himself in Damascus. Thus his offering, "In the Lion's Den", is neither `parachute journalism' nor the story of a doe-eyed apple-pie eater struggling to make sense of an alien Arab fantasyland -- the two most common categories of expat writing on the region. Rather, Tabler -- a former contributor to Executive -- is candid and observant in relating the challenges of trying to comprehend the vast complexities of a country like Syria.
The author has been accused of being naïve, in asserting that after Bashar al-Assad's succession to the presidency in 2000 the country would move from autocracy to democracy, but what Tabler says interested him more was getting an "unexpected front-row seat to a fight", pitting the young reformist Assad against the entrenched status quo of the old guard. He later admits some of his shortcomings in framing the situation as such; while there were superficial changes, it was clear after the first few years of the new Assad's leadership that regime survival would always be the paramount concern.
Tabler was in a unique position to assess the touted reforms in Syria after a private meeting with Assad's wife, Asma, and then working for one of her government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria. This led him to start up, under the auspices of Asma Assad, the country's first English-language magazine, Syria Today. Tabler's account of his meeting with the "first lady" is intriguing, as are the relations between Asma and her go-betweens at the GONGOs. Equally fascinating is Tabler's account of being the only non-Arab and the first American to accompany a Syrian president on a state trip, to Beijing in 2004.
A criticism of "Lion's Den" is it goes into no great depth about such encounters, or the running of Syria Today. Tabler also reveals little about his life in Damascus and travels around the country. A possible explanation for this may be that the book was intended both as a memoir and a dovetail into future career aspirations -- Tabler's current employer is the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy think tank.
Much of the book consequently concerns Syria's relations with Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, and America's resultant foreign policy with Damascus. This ranges from Western hopes of engaging Assad to bring Syria `in from the cold' -- primarily through solving the Arab-Israeli conflict -- to problematic relations after the Bush administration labeled Syria part of the `Axis of Evil' and Damascus' apparent reluctance to prevent fighters crossing its border into Iraq following the 2003 United States invasion. Relations soured further following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, leading the US to withdraw its ambassador to Syria and Damascus entering into a strategic alliance with Tehran. The account of the ongoing tussle between Damascus and Washington is succinct and bipartisan, providing a useful primer on bilateral relations.
Tabler chose to write the book after he was not allowed back into Syria in 2008, due to his increasingly vocal criticism of the regime. Published in September, Tabler could not have asked for a more opportune moment for the release, given the international media attention on the Syrian uprising, and he has capitalized on this in the epilogue in arguing how Assad and the regime should be handled by Washington. While Tabler may have been taken in by Assad's veneer of reform a decade ago, "In the Lion's Den" resounds as an impeachment of the Syrian leadership and a call for even tighter international sanctions to bring the regime to account.