Of all the countries undergoing political upheaval in the Arab uprisings, none poses such a mystery as Syria. With little free media access to the country, it is difficult to ascertain the true state of the Syrian rebellion. Television channels that wish the Assad regime ill, such as Qatar's Al Jazeera or Saudi Arabia's Al Arabiya, continue to report protest after protest, but we are also presented (usually by different sources) evidence of popular support for the regime too. Experts say Homs, Hama and Deir az-Zor, among other provincial towns, side with the rebels, but Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's political and economic capitals, remain loyal. Legions of YouTube users offer evidence of the regime's crimes and their own upheaval, and a steady stream of deaths at the hands of the security forces - lately between 20 and 30 a day - continues. Yet the balance never seems to quite tip. What will get it there?
The Syrian regime has proved, over the last decade, a remarkable survivor. Time and again, Bashar Al Assad has pulled back from the brink, taking his father's style of brinkmanship to new levels. It is easy to forget that in 2004 it was commonplace in Washington to discuss regime change in Damascus. Syria was not quite part of George W Bush's "axis of evil", but it had junior membership. The widespread belief that Syria was behind the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, its subsequent hurried withdrawal from Lebanon, and mounting allegations that it was turning into a staging station for the jihadist international's operations in Iraq, made the country seem vulnerable.
Bashar Al Assad, the weak-chinned second son of the "Lion of Damascus" who had never been meant to rule (his brother Basel, who died in a car crash near Damascus's notoriously foggy international airport, had been the heir apparent) used the uncertainty over his own power to weather these storms. In many respects, Bashar played a magnificent game of international diplomacy, making subtle leverage of shifts in US, EU, Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Saudi foreign policy priorities to ensure his regime's continued survival. By the beginning of 2011, Bashar was having it both ways: Washington was kept at bay through a process of engagement based on the idea that Syria could be moved away from Iran, while Syria increased its public overtures of friendship towards Tehran and consolidated its status as a member of the Resistance Front that carried on the struggle against Israel and imperialism.
In the Lion's Den is part-memoir, part-analysis of this turbulent decade of US-Syrian relations. But it also explains why the Assad regime, even as it seems to emerge triumphantly unscathed on the international scene, lost a domestic battle it had too long taken for granted. Andrew Tabler, its author, is a journalist turned commentator who moved to Damascus from Cairo in early 2002 - in part because he felt frustrated with Egypt's conservative and conspiracy-prone society and more at ease with more secular Syria, even if the regime there was more oppressive. He tells the story of working for a publication (Syria Today) that, given protection from Asma Al Assad, the president's photogenic wife, hoped to make use of the appearance of a limited opening for reform at the beginning of Assad's reign. This "Damascus Spring" was short-lived - it only lasted about 18 months - and it can be argued that Tabler stayed on too long, far beyond the point when any hope of "reform" was lost.
Much of the book's appeal is that it is an honest meditation on the moral choices one faces when working closely to a regime of this kind. On the one hand, Tabler was given some privileged access to officials and the rare ability to live in and report on a very closed country and thus disseminate information about it. On the other, as an early advocate of engagement with Syria and, for a time, an optimist about the regime's ability to carry out at least limited reforms (particularly on the economic front), it could be argued that Tabler was both drinking and peddling the Assad Kool-Aid.