Andrew Tabler, In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011), 288 pp.
In The Lion's Den is not an ordinary book. Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, Andrew Tabler has been known as one of the more astute and better informed commentators on Syrian affairs and, from his perch at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as one of the more consistent advocates of exerting American pressure on Assad's regime in order to end the bloodshed in Syria. This book tells the story of how Tabler became a "Syria expert," of his work with Syria's "first lady" and of his growing disappointment with the expectation that Hafez al-Assad's young successor Bashar and his British-born Syrian wife (a former investment banker in London) would reform and open up Syria's oppressive political system. When Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, he did introduce a measure of political liberalization (known as "The Damascus Spring"), but was soon persuaded (or plainly told) by the hard core of the regime that opening Pandora’s boxes was too risky a game. Nor did his wife's experiment with introducing a measure of reform by sponsoring state controlled NGOs go very far.
Tabler tells, from a personal perspective, the story of a third failure, of the deterioration of Assad's relationship with two American presidents (Bush and Obama) and their administrations and of Syria's sliding into the current crisis. We read how a young American who arrived in the Middle East (Egypt, Lebanon and Syria) to study the language and the region and to work as an economic analyst was drawn into the inner circle of Syria's first lady. Tabler became the editor of Syria Today, an English-language magazine that was part of a larger effort to improve Syria's relationship with and image in the West. His personal story is intertwined with the description of Assad's inability to disentangle himself from the family's heritage and from the Alawite core of the regime's paranoid defense of its privileged status. Bashar al-Assad would extend one hand to Washington (he collaborated with the CIA after September 11) yet destroy his credibility by using his other hand to meddle in Iraq or assassinate Lebanese politicians. Tabler's narrative is an excellent guide to the events of the century's first decade in the Levant, to the inner workings of Assad's regime and to the futility of efforts to reconcile the nature of this regime with the establishment of a different American-Syrian relationship and to settle Syria's conflict with Israel.
A disillusioned Tabler left Syria and went to work as a research fellow in a Washington think tank. In Washington he acquired the reputation of a fine analyst who knew Syria first hand, understood and loved the country, was critical of the regime and kept in touch with reform-minded Syrian friends. Many of these friends became active in the Syrian opposition once the rebellion against Assad's regime broke out in March 2011.
Tabler's book is not about the Syrian rebellion but it is mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to understand why it broke out and why Bashar al-Assad failed to restrain it by offering real reforms in the spring of 2011.The same forces that obstructed reform in 2000 militated against it in 2011 and the Syrian crisis deteriorated into the full-fledged civil war of 2012. The early phase of the crisis is described and analyzed in the book's final pages.
Tel Aviv University