In 2003 Andrew Tabler met Asma al-Assad, the young, glamorous wife of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. A black Honda whisked him away from his apartment in Damascus to the hills above the city, and then to a secret location guarded by sweeping low branches, an iron gate and men cradling machine guns. He remembers the visit as being surprisingly casual. Nobody bothered to check his ID before he entered Asma’s office. When he left, he almost called Syria’s first lady, a former hedge-fund analyst and investment banker in London, by her first name. Then one remembers what he says her secretary had told him: “We know where you live, Mr. Tabler.”
From 2001 to 2008 Tabler was the only Western journalist permanently based in Damascus, partly because of the rarest of things: a multiple-entry press visa. In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria (Lawrence Hill; $16.95) is his account of that time, but it neglects to answer some obvious questions. Why was Tabler granted such access? And what of his career change, from observer and consultant in Damascus—he worked for Asma as media adviser for a quasi NGO that she patronized and through which he founded Syria’s first English-language magazine, Syria Today—to his present post at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? The narrative is a maze of opaque remarks, like this one about a colleague from Damascus: “While Leila didn’t like the Washington Institute’s position on Syria and was critical of my work, she understood that I was leaving Syria behind.”
Tabler worked in Syria during the era of pledged reform, when the Assad regime privatized banks and businesses and courted European and American diplomats, who had hoped the president’s interest in liberalizing the economy might signal a break with Iran and be a harbinger of peace with Israel. It wasn’t. Bashar proved to be his father’s son. As he entertained dignitaries and cultivated an image of secular pragmatism, he, like Hafez, armed Hezbollah and held out for peace with Israel on his own terms.
Tabler writes of an “expectations gap” in Damascus between the level of diplomatic engagement Assad sought and the cool American response. In Washington there were hopes, never fulfilled, that Assad and the generals behind him—his father’s clique—were sincere about domestic reform and regional détente. Today there is a chasm between Assad’s speeches about infiltrators and armed gangs and the bloody reality of Syria’s months-long uprising. Thousands of Syrians have been killed as Bashar’s brother Maher leads his praetorian guard around the country, laying siege to pockets of protest. Tabler insists that harsh diplomacy and harsher sanctions can “teach Assad that Washington will judge him on his actions, not just his words to US officials behind closed doors.”
This is wishful thinking. The uprisings in Homs and Hama are teaching Assad about judgment. The regime is scrambling, insisting that as long as Damascus and Aleppo are quiet—thanks to the secret police—it will survive. Tabler’s paradox is that his years in Syria, where he saw the limits of America’s reach, have landed him in Washington, promoting the power and influence of America over a country where it has so little.