A captivating insider perspective, over the course of two days I only put down "In the Lion's Den" out of necessity, and wished there was more when I finished.
"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.