An American in the Den of Assad

10 March 2012

Now that the Syrian army is waging a scorched earth campaign against civilians as well as dissident rebels, Andrew Tabler can count himself lucky. He managed to live and work in Damascus for years and even got to know the Assad family back when that was still possible. And the much-feared Palestine branch of military intelligence ran him out of the country before all this mayhem broke out.

In the meantime he landed himself a job at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and wrote a book about what it was like to live and work in Syria during the cold war with Assad. The end product of all this is his terrific book In the Lion’s Den.

He and I spoke on a panel about the Syrian uprising today in Washington, DC, and I had a chance earlier to talk with him about his book, his time in Damascus, the anti-Assad insurrection, and what the U.S. and Israel ought to do about it.

Andrew Tabler: This book is part memoir and part policy analysis. I wanted to introduce my readers to Syria and explain what it was like to live and work there, especially when I was working with the First Lady’s charities and Bashar al-Assad.

My disenchantment with the regime came early, within the first couple of months, when I had to turn down a bag of money. That told me everything I needed to know. The question after that was, what do I do?

My business partner and I didn’t like working for Asma al-Assad, so we took our Syria Todaymagazine out of her business incubator where it was founded. We had to find people to invest in it. It was harder that way. If we had accepted the bag of money we would have been able to survive more easily without having to do much.

But when things kicked off in Lebanon following the Hariri assassination, it allowed us to have the independence to write about things going on in Syria, including the opposition coming out and organizing around the Damascus Declaration. We got away with a lot before they lowered the boom on us.

As a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs I could write for foreign publications without having to worry about government censors. It was only when one of those articles was exposed by Imad Mustafa, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, that I got into serious trouble.

I wrote an article about the Syrian opposition called “Democracy to the Rescue.” This was in the spring of 2006. A few months later there was a huge bust-up over it when Joshua Landis, in an article for the Washington Quarterly, misquoted my article as saying one of the Syrian opposition members, Michel Kilo, went to Morocco and met with the Muslim Brotherhood a few days after Hariri was killed. That was an enormously sensitive thing. You never want to say a member of the Syrian opposition met with the Muslim Brotherhood because it’s punishable by death. Kilo was in custody at the time. Any Syria expert should have known that. So there was a huge fight between Joshua Landis and Michael Young about this.

MJT: I remember when that happened.

Andrew Tabler: It all came from my article with the Institute of Current World Affairs. And it threw my work with them into the limelight. When Imad Mustafa found out about it, he wrote a diplomatic cable to Damascus that accused me of being a radical.

The government then sent the Palestine branch of military intelligence—the scariest branch in the country—to my office. That’s when I had to leave Syria.

I spent a lot of time in Damascus. The question at the time how to deal with the government. Assad is so ruthless and so good at turning things around on us. At that time, of course, it all revolved around the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah when everyone rallied around Bashar’s flag in Damascus.

MJT: What drew you to Syria in the first place? You were in Cairo for a while and decided you couldn’t stay there after September 11, which I understand perfectly. But why choose Damascus as the alternative?

Andrew Tabler: Aside from the year I worked for Asma al-Assad’s charities, I always had a journalist visa. Because I was well-known in the country and had worked for Asma for a year, I was given a multiple-entry visa. That allowed me to come and go from Syria as I pleased. No other person could do it unless they were a diplomat. So I was able to spend almost half my time in Lebanon.

MJT: Right, that’s how I first met you. You were in Beirut every weekend.

Andrew Tabler: And for good reason. [Laughs.]

MJT: [Laughs.]

Andrew Tabler: It was the only way I could keep it together. And it was the only way I could tell the story that’s in my book. So in a way I moved from Cairo to Damascus, but I really moved from Cairo to Damascus and Lebanon.

Beirut, Lebanon

MJT: You said in your book that you left Cairo partly because the Egyptian response to September 11 was, shall we say, alienating. Was Damascus a more politically friendly environment, at least as far as the reaction to Osama bin Laden’s attacks against us? And if so, what do you think accounts for the difference?

Andrew Tabler: That’s a good question. I was in Cairo when it happened so I witnessed the knee-jerk reaction. It was a hard thing to watch. When I got to Syria several days later, people were much more friendly and much more apologetic. Had I been in Damascus at the time, I might have seen more knee-jerk reactions. But it really was different. In Damascus there was a lot more sensitivity to the matter just as there was in Beirut.

I felt extremely alienated in Cairo and in Damascus I didn’t.

MJT: There’s a whole chapter in your book about you and bunch of other journalists at a Syrian government conference.

Andrew Tabler: [Laughs.]

MJT: Writing about something like that would normally be a thundering bore, but this was fascinating. The authorities did everything in their power to make sure nobody understood anything or left the conference with any information whatsoever. Why do you suppose they spent so much time and effort making themselves all but impossible for mere mortals to understand?

Andrew Tabler: One of the ways the Syrian government defends itself is by obscuring everything that happens inside the country. Right now there’s a huge question about whether or not to intervene. The government can dispute whatever argument pro-interventionists have. This isn’t unusual for these kinds of regimes. Assad is a master at manipulating the press. Often times hardly anyone is even paying attention to Syria, though that’s changed now. At the time they could snow job us, but now it’s a lot harder, especially when so much violence is being captured on YouTube.

MJT: There was an article in Vogue magazine last year about Asma al-Assad—I’m sure you read it— that was widely condemned for its fawning portrayal of the wife of a mass murderer. You actually know Asma al-Assad. What did you think of her at the time you started working for her and what do you think of her now?

Asma and Bashar al-Assad in Moscow

Andrew Tabler: The Asma al-Assad I first met seemed humble and chilled. I thought she was smart. She was really into fashion. She liked nice threads. She was glamorous like a lot of women in the Levant and that created some tension. On the one hand she was relaxed and down to earth, and in other ways she seemed like a model. That was my first indication that she had a dual nature.

We’re seeing that again now during the uprising. The Vogue article was so grotesque—they even took it off the Web site, which is the first time they’ve ever done that—because she said the country was extremely poor while going on and on about her 800 dollar shoes. Now she’s publicly standing by her man during the uprising. They’re married and have children and I realize it might be hard to break away, but she’s always had this dual nature.

She’s a Sunni from Homs. That’s her background. And the regime right now is raining artillery down on Homs and killing her fellow Sunnis. It’s not a pretty picture. But she’s made her bed and is going to have to lay in it.

MJT: What, in your view, drives the Syrian government to align itself with Iran and with regional terrorist organizations?

Andrew Tabler: There are several dimensions to it. Hafez al-Assad stabilized Syria by focusing the country’s energy on conflict with an out group, the Jews of Israel. The regime uses the so-called Emergency Law [a supposed national security response to the state of war with Israel] to indefinitely detain people.

The justification for authoritarianism is domestic instability. Syria was once one of the most unstable countries in the world. Hafez al-Assad turned all that around by resisting Israel. Militarily that happened in 1973 [the Yom Kippur War] and indirectly in 1982 [Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and Iran’s creation of Hezbollah]. Since that time, they’ve been supporting groups that fight Israel like Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, etc.

Syria also supports groups that destabilize neighboring countries, including leftist Palestinian groups, the PKK in Turkey, and jihadists who went to Iraq to kill Americans.

MJT: What do you think the odds are that the revolution against the government will succeed?

Andrew Tabler: The odds are good, but Assad may be able to hold on longer than most people think, including those in the Obama administration. He’s not making the choices he could to get out of this. He’s not reforming. He’s not going to change the minority nature of the state.

At the same time, he has—and I talk about this in the book—he has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East. The demographics are a mess. Many Syrians were born in the ten years after the Hama massacre in 1982. Syria at the time had one of the fastest growing populations on the planet. All those young people are now out in the streets. In the long run I don’t see how a system run by the Alawite minority and that has been unable to reform under the Assad family for 42 years can accommodate the new Syria. In the end the regime will go down, but it could be very bloody.

Syria could become like Algeria where the regime just holds on while 100,000 people die and it could go on for years until there’s finally a negotiated settlement. Or it could go on for years and year and years and finally he falls. Either way, I don’t see Assad exiting quickly. I hope I’m wrong, but we’ll see.

MJT: If he were to leave, where do you suppose he’d go? The Saudis wouldn’t want him, would they?

Andrew Tabler: The Emirates are a possibility. I heard about an offer from them earlier. He might go to Central Asia.

MJT: Really? [Laughs.]

Andrew Tabler: He might to go to Iran.

MJT: What about Russia? Do you think that’s a viable option?

Andrew Tabler: The Russians would probably let him in. But other than that, I’m not sure.

MJT: What are the odds that Syria will descend into full-blown sectarian warfare like Lebanon and Iraq have?

Andrew Tabler: That’s a good question, isn’t it?

MJT: It isn’t that bad yet and maybe it won’t be, but I don’t know. How sectarian-minded are the Syrian people compared with the Lebanese and the Iraqis? You have a better read on it than I do.

Andrew Tabler: They are sectarian below the surface. How sectarian they’ll behave depends on what’s eating down through the general good will of the society. Violence will do that. It sets people off. Death and destruction lead to revenge killings and become a cycle.

A lot of people are saying the West shouldn’t intervene in Syria because it’s complicated and we don’t want to inflame the situation. But what’s driving this is that the regime can’t reform and there are too many young people in the country. And they’re clashing.

People are dying. The people in that region who have a lot more invested in the country than we do—and I’m talking about the Saudis, the Turks, the Iranians, the Iraqis, all the neighbors—they’re going to support whoever in the country is on their side. They’re going to send assistance. In some cases they’re going to send weapons. And that will threaten to set off a proxy war. Syria is already experiencing an armed insurrection.

Homs is more communal. The mosaic of Syria comes together around Homs. You have Sunnis in one area next to another that’s entirely Alawite. Right now it’s an insurgency. It’s the people against the regime. As this goes on, though, it has the potential to turn into something intra-communal and that will be extremely dangerous.

MJT: Do you think outside support from the neighbors will make things better or worse?

Andrew Tabler: The question is, worse for who and when? Five years from now, the neighbors giving arms to one group or another might look like a bad idea. But today, giving somebody arms to keep them from having their head blown off is probably a good idea. It all depends on where you’re standing.

It’s natural and human to protect people you feel akin to when they’re in a time of need. And self-defense is a right I wouldn’t deny to anyone. As an American, I just can’t. But unfortunately I think this has the potential to morph into a conflict that is an intra-communal proxy war. Syria is at the center of the Middle East. It has one of the largest chemical and biological weapons stockpiles in the region. And this conflict could go on for years no matter when Assad falls.

MJT: What do you think about the speculation that the Alawites might try to break off the Mediterranean region from the rest of the country if they lose power? Is that even possible? It’s a sectarian patchwork even over there. The city of Latakia has a Sunni majority.

Latakia, Syria

Andrew Tabler: The coastal cities are always Sunni as are the valleys. It’s the mountains that are usually Alawite. The Alawites eventually came down to Latakia and Tartus and the cities became more mixed.

The Alawites could retreat there—it would be a natural place—but the country is so diverse now. It would be extremely difficult for Alawites everywhere to just pick up and go home.

MJT: Do you think they’re actually planning something like is as a backup? Michael Young has said this might be the case.

Andrew Tabler: Yeah.

MJT: How much of this is speculation and how much of it is actually happening?

Andrew Tabler: That people are going home?

MJT: That the Alawite regime is considering an Alawite breakaway state as a viable option.

Andrew Tabler: All Levantine people have a Plan B, a Plan C, and a Plan D. It would be natural for them to plan something like this, but how many of them are actually doing it is unclear.

Remember that a lot of Alawites haven’t done well under the Assad regime. The Alawite region is one of the least developed parts of Syria even after all these years. It’s completely forested in oak. It’s weird.

MJT: Why do you suppose that is?

Andrew Tabler: It was always an underdeveloped part of the country.

I had lots of Alawite friends when I was in Syria. I still consider them my friends. They came down from the mountain two different ways. One was through education. The other was through the military and the security services.

Many of those who came down from the mountain from education are accomplished in their fields. Some of them are the best of people. I really enjoyed working with some of them.

Those who came down from the mountain through the military and the security services know brutality. Once you get engaged in that kind of thing and it becomes a tradition in your community, it rubs on you like soot. It’s hard to get clean. Those kinds of people don’t tend to have many sentimental feelings for developing their communities back home. They also aren’t very well educated. Most of them didn’t go to university.

MJT: If Assad falls and is replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood government, do you think that would be an improvement or would Syria be even worse off than it already is? Obviously we wouldn’t want to see that, but would it be worse?

Andrew Tabler: Well, Syria isn’t Egypt. The Sunni community in Syria is extremely diverse. You have folks who are conservative from the northwest. You have urbane Sunnis in Aleppo and Damascus. There are the tribal Sunnis in eastern Syria. They’ve always had problems getting along. It will be hard for the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power in that kind of environment.

Damascus, Syria

Even if they end up with a prominent role, they still won’t be able to pull off the kind of thing they have in Egypt. It will be so much harder for them in Syria.

But let’s say they do. We wouldn’t like how they run things domestically, but there will be a lot more tension with Iran. There will be a lot more tension with Hezbollah. Whether they’d be outright enemies of Iran and Hezbollah would partly depend on what Iran was willing to do for them, or what the Saudis and Turks were willing to do for them.

MJT: What do you think the U.S. should be doing about this? If the White House asked you for advice, what would you say? What should American foreign policy be right now?

Andrew Tabler: Right now we have a top-down strategy. We’re hoping to use diplomatic pressure to get the Russians on side for a solution like in Yemen where there’s a negotiated exit for Assad or the military decides to pop the ruling family. I think these approaches are worth pursuing and hopefully they’ll work at some point, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on either of them.

We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that we’re going to have to work this from the ground up. And in order to do that, we’re going to have to work more closely with the Syrian opposition—not just the Syrian National Council, but also those who are on the ground. We’re going to have to accept the fact that the Free Syrian Army is the force on the ground and figure out how we’re going to engage it and what we’re willing to do with it.

I think we should be cautious because we don’t fully understand them yet. There are many different parts to the Free Syrian Army. But I think we need to engage it somehow. The smartest way to do that is through the local protest groups inside the country and to encourage them to coordinate.

MJT: What should the Israelis do? Sit back and watch? Or should they be doing something?

Andrew Tabler: They’ll need to prepare for contingencies, but they’ve smartly said they don’t want to play into Assad’s hands or his rhetoric. They also realize that what’s going on in these countries doesn’t have anything to do with them. It has to do with the demographic problems and the way the regimes rule their own societies.

If I were Israel I’d watch very carefully, I’d worry about the WMDs and take precautions against them, and I think they are. I’d also start planning on how to deal with whatever emerges if the Assad regime does go down. How will Israel deal with a Sunni-led government in Syria for the first time since the 1960s? And what about the Golan Heights?

The Israelis haven’t wanted to give the Golan back to a regime that has been transferring Scud missiles to Hezbollah. That wouldn’t make any sense. Who would do that? But what if there’s a key moment where they can make a deal with a new government and sweep out support for the resistance, for Hezbollah?

But it’s too early to talk about that.

MJT: What do you suppose the average Syrian would think about a new government signing a peace treaty with Israel? Is that even a viable option?

Andrew Tabler: Here’s the thing. Arab rulers who sign a peace treaty with Israel suffer a lot of domestic criticism. They can be killed for it, such as Anwar Sadat. It will be very difficult for a new Syrian government to go through with it, but it depends. The Middle East has taught me to expect the unexpected.

I watch what’s going on every day. I’ve been watching Assad rocket Homs. He’s just pounding the place. There’s a Facebook page up with maps that show little teardrops wherever there’s a protest. During this entire onslaught on Homs the protests have continued throughout Syria every day. It’s amazing. For eleven months this has been happening against one of the most brutal regimes on the planet.

If they go home they’ll just have to wait for the regime to show up and pull out their fingernails, so they might as well stay out protesting. This is their only shot to bring down the government.

MJT: Right.

Andrew Tabler: People in Syria know they have a choice. It all comes down to an old saying: better to end in horror than to endure endless horror.

Post-script: I have just returned to North Africa so I can continue covering the Beirut Spring from the ground. I need your help with travel expenses. This is the off season in an off year when everything but the air fare is discounted, but I still can’t do this without your assistance. If you haven’t supported me recently (or ever), please help me out. PayPal donations add up to plane tickets, and so do sales of my new book In the Wake of the Surge.