An American journalist working in Syria provides an up-close, somewhat incomplete portrait of a tense country struggling to extricate itself from Lebanon amid U.S. sanctions during the mid 2000s.
In this look into a highly censored, autocratic, secular society bedeviled by Islamist fundamentalists, Tabler chronicles his attempt to keep running an English-language startup journal, Syria Today, begun in early 2004 under the auspices of the young new Syrian president’s wife as part of a host of promised reforms when President Bashar al-Assad took office after the death of his longtime dictator father, in 2000. However, over the course of the decade, the NGOs patronized by Mrs. Assad were threatened continually when politics heated up as Syrian relations with Israel and the U.S. deteriorated, and Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon, which had essentially provided its economic mainstay. Tabler’s unique position as an American working to promote Syrian culture allowed him a keen perch from which to observe unfolding events. The American invasion of Iraq changed dynamics utterly in the region as Syria, sharing a border with Iraq, resisted American influence, even supporting “terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein.” Syria has flirted with Islamist terrorist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Hamas, and openly supported Hezbollah, a thorn in the Israelis’ side; the Bush administration responded by imposing harsh economic sanctions. The suspicious bombing murder of Lebanese opposition leader Rafik al-Hariri was followed by the “battle of the protests” (the so-called Cedar Revolution) that eventually forced Syria out of the country in April 2005. Moreover, Syrian’s rapprochement with Iran caused enormous animosity with the U.S., when Iran was moving into the vacuum left by Washington.
A singular, critical look inside this compelling Arab nation.