Andrew Tabler recently joined the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as a fellow, where he will be writing about Syria and the Middle East, specifically targeting US policymakers. Until this appointment, Tabler lived in the Middle East for 14 years, working as a journalist and researcher. After studying comparative politics and Arabic at the American University of Cairo (AUC), Tabler worked as regional editor at the Middle East Times newspaper, where he covered the peace process, and Egyptian and Jordanian affairs. He then worked as senior editor at the Oxford Business Group (OBG) for over three years before working as media consultant for various Syrian NGOs with Syrian First Lady Asmah al-Asad. During his time in Damascus, Tabler co-founded and was editor-in-chief for Syria Today, Syria's first private-sector English-language magazine. At the same time, he was a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs, and wrote monthly analysis pieces on Syria, “during periods of tremendous change,” as the post started about a week before former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005. Tabler will be publishing a book next year on his experiences during his fellowships, entitled In the Lion’s Den: America’s Cold War with Assad of Syria. He sat down with NOW Lebanon’s Hayeon Lee to discuss his past in the Middle East and future in Washington.
What are your reflections on the Arab world as you leave after 14 years of being deeply involved in the region?
I come from the countryside in the United States… I came here knowing only about the Arab world from books. I did not speak Arabic, although I read a little bit. The one thing I learned… is that [Arabs] are a lot like Americans, especially from the countryside: very nice, personally very warm. On the surface, we’re very, very similar. But there are fundamental differences. The Arab world is badly ruled. Its rulers are not accountable to their people, and they often make very bad decisions. Because of that, people keep a lot of their personal feelings to themselves. When you get a chance to know people and find out about how they feel, you realize about their everyday frustrations, especially from the lack of reform. It’s not just a lack of democracy. It’s a lack of reform in these countries.
What kind of frustrations and which countries?
The world is changing. Globalization is spreading in all countries. For example, Syria is seeing a tremendous amount of change. And other countries in the region like Egypt, for example, and Jordan have done a lot more to accommodate that change so that people who are working in this field can do their work above the table in plain view and live a normal life and be able to predict things a little bit. In cases like Syria, they have not implemented reforms. And they’ve largely been reactive. Most of the current reforms in Syria at the moment are largely due to the crisis that Syria faced in Lebanon. What I learned in Syria… in working with reformers there and working with the first lady’s NGOs, was that it was very difficult to do something new without a legal foundation. So Syria has lagged seriously behind… The little-known part of authoritarianism in the Arab world is the lack of reform. It is in itself a way of controlling things because you don’t have a law, you don’t have legal structure, so therefore, everything becomes dependent on one person or a group of people. This produces the corruption that stifles change. A good way to start dealing with the Arab world is to encourage, assist and oftentimes cajole these governments into issuing genuine legal reforms.
Weren’t you working with the government in a way since you were working with the first lady?
In 2003-2004 I worked with NGOs under the “umbrella” of the first lady [Asmah al-Assad]. She was very personally involved in … trying to start these organizations without having a modern law on which to build them. NGOs didn’t exist when the Syrian law for associations was passed in the 1950s during the union with Egypt… To do anything outside the Baath party apparatus was very difficult. She tried an experiment to start NGOs in Syria, to get them off the ground, and to work with the international community. But it came to very little, and that’s mostly a result of lack of legal reform to govern these institutions. So until we see some real progress in that area, things will be very hard for everyone to move forward, because you can have them in name, but in terms of actually having them function, it’s very difficult because people who work in these institutions don’t have any guidelines, and they don’t have anything under their feet so they don’t take any risks. So therefore they don’t do very much. So the idea is good, but for some reason, they don’t implement.
Could you expand on how Syrian-Lebanese relations influenced Syria?
Syria’s crisis in Lebanon set off the most widespread changes in Syria for nearly 40 years. Some of this included the opposition organizing, economic reform, and the spread of globalization. Some of these have been rolled back. The political opposition has largely been imprisoned. Economic reform, the issues they have been forced to implement – banking reform, foreign exchange, other financial issues, trading laws – these have remained in place. How did Lebanese relations impact [Syria]? Certainly, when the Syrian opposition’s October 2005 Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change was expanded to the Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut Declaration in May 2006 and included Lebanese opposition members, that was clearly the red line for the regime. That was used as a tool to crack down and imprison major members of the opposition including Michel Kilo, Anwar Bunni. And of course was expanded to the entire Damascus Declaration last autumn. So in a way, the Lebanon crisis produced many positive things for Syria, but there were also negative things as well.
The 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel went a long way in convincing Syria that there was a conspiracy in the region to break their country into parts. This was very real for [the Syrians] because the rise in violence in Iraq combined with the flow of refugees from Lebanon to Syria during the 2006 war made people fear change and rally around the Syrian flag. In 2005, you had a tremendous amount of change, you had members of the regime like Abdul Halim Khaddam and so on, breaking off and joining the opposition in exile. In 2006, this was largely reversed. So US policy on Syria had mixed results. In 2006, when US legislators were coming to Syria, like Nancy Pelosi and so on, to engage Syria, not only did they walk away with[out] anything in terms of promises on Syria’s regional behavior, but [Syria] also locked up Syrian dissidents shortly thereafter and sentenced them to very long prison terms. So the US Democrats certainly didn’t get what they wanted. Over the last year or so, the Bush administration has got its foreign policy in better shape: the surge in Iraq, the sahwa [awakening] campaign in Iraq helped the United States understand much better the flow of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq, including al-Qaeda, and helped shed some light on that. And also, there was of course the Israeli bombing of suspected nuclear reactors in Syria, and… what’s been recently released on what was found around that reactor tells us that Eastern Syria was a very crazy place, and that fixing up US-Syrian relations is going to be tricky. There are many people in Washington right now that believe that Syria can be flipped and so on, and that by getting Syria to agree to sign a peace agreement with Israel is the key. It’s true, that if you had a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, it would definitely change the way Syria is regarded by the international community [and] would definitely change the way the regime would govern the country. But there is no silver bullet when it comes to Syria. There is no easy solution.
How will Obama’s administration change current US-Syrian relations in your opinion?
I think Obama’s approach of direct negotiations or direct talks with Syria opens up the doors for Syria to say its case. But the question remains, what can really be achieved from these talks? There are stark differences between the two positions. Obama’s approach would allow the engagement to work and also the use of possible carrots, including how US sanctions are calibrated and implemented in Syria. On the other hand, the Obama administration will be able to walk away from talks when they’re not productive and use sanctions. They have indicated they will use sanctions and other punitive measures to cajole their adversaries into cooperation. I expect the Obama administration… to use all the arrows into America’s quiver to bring Syria around.
Do you think Obama is picking the right people so far?
Given the relative success of the surge and the sahwa campaign in Iraq, and then you have at the same time, Robert Gates continuing on as Secretary of Defense, and Hilary Clinton…being Secretary of State… this would indicate to me that more conservative approach to foreign policy could be taken than what… he ran in the primaries, which means that engagement with Iran and Syria could be much, much more nuanced, and not as idealistic.
As you will be working for an influential think tank in Washington DC, what do you see as your main role, message and contribution?
My fellowship [at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy] deals with engaging Syria and ensuring US national security interests. I have a very long background in Syria, I have covered the country extensively, I know most of its reformers and I’ve met a number of its hardliners. I was the only foreign correspondent to ever travel with the Syrian president on a foreign state visit (China, 2004), and so I understand… [Syria’s] strengths and weaknesses. I want to try and make it so that whatever discussions come about are based on Syria as it is as well as what it could realistically be.
How long have you been blogging? Do you plan to continue?
About two years. I don’t plan to blog everyday… just because I don’t like that kind of writing. I enjoy reading people’s blogs but I only try to write [a blog] when I have something to say. I also use it to launch some of my work… But I will continue blogging, I like the blogging world, and you’ll be surprised: a lot of people read it. I have done nothing to publicize it at all, and I get emails from people all over the world.
What do you think the role of blogging is, especially regarding the Syrian regime?
This is not the same Syria it was in the 1980s, or 1990s for that matter. Syrians at home and abroad are writing about their country. So I think we have a tremendous amount of information on Syria. But I think the really hard part is trying to get Syria to add up. Trying to get it to make any sense because of the way the Syrian regime handles information. Making sense out of Syria is very hard, and I imagine it will continue to be. I think blogs can help that. It allows some people not so forthcoming about their identities to talk about things openly. I’m not one of them, I blog under my name.
What do you think of Syria’s role in Lebanon?
I just think it’s important to not go back to the way things were in the 1990s. The 1990s for some people was an era of stability. For other people, especially in Lebanon, it was a nightmare. So it’s very important for US policymakers… [and] people who work on Syria in general to make sure that the US says very clearly to Syria that whatever happens, we can’t go back to the way things were in the 1990s. It’s not good for Lebanon, and it’s not good for Syria.
Many Lebanese are known to have preferred John McCain over Barack Obama. What is your opinion on this?
McCain was very explicit about Syria [and] Lebanon. Obama was less explicit but on the other hand, I don’t think his advisors are naïve. I don’t think they’ll be handing Lebanon back to Syria like in the 1990s. That was the historical exception. This isn’t going to happen again. It shouldn’t happen again because the first time, it didn’t work out very well. Also, perhaps most importantly here, this would also not be very good for Syria. During those years that Syria was in Lebanon and controlled Lebanon, they used Lebanon as the economic lung that stifled economic reform at home. Syria has to reform in order to accommodate the globalization. I recently attended a conference where Obama and McCain’s senior foreign policy advisors spoke in detail. I found Obama’s advisors very well-informed. We’ll have to see, but I’m optimistic.