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.