As a tense, superficial calm settles over much of the protest-racked country, Syrians from all walks of life wait and watch to see what comes next
DAMASCUS, Syria -- The old city of Damascus, even in these turbulent days, is a timeless place. Clustered around the gilded marble of the Ummayyad mosque, the winding souks are lined with stalls selling carpets and spices, hunkered under half-timbered houses.
The streets do not look very different from photographs taken of them a century ago. Outside this enclave, the population has swelled to two million; suburbs creep up the mountains around the city. But, unlike most of its rapidly changing neighbors, Syria has tried hard to stay the same.
In Lebanon, the old souks are gone, ravaged by civil war and rebuilt as concrete high-rises; in Iraq, invasion unleashed sectarian slaughter. Syria's 23 million people, although they too are a hotchpotch of religion and ethnicity, have lived first under 40 years of stable, stifling rule, first by President Hafez al-Assad and, since 2000, his son, Bashar.
Hafez built a bloated government infrastructure, in which most people worked for the state in undemanding, low-paid jobs. Both the old President and, later, his son discouraged dissent -- occasionally by mass violence, but more often by jailing thousands of opponents, maintaining a vast network of informers, and persuading people that their alternative was the chaos Syrians saw in other countries.
When change came to the Arab world, and the televised revolutions spread, even the most hopeful Syria-watchers thought it was unlikely to happen here. Though the government has in recent years made cautious reforms, the changes are almost exclusively economic rather than political. The politicians here say that change must come gradually and Syrians are not ready for real democracy.
But in the last two months, political opposition has grown from stagnation to white-water rapidity. After a bloody succession of weekly Friday protests, the country and its leaders are looking at a Syria that will never be the same again.
In March, after a dispute between sheikhs and government authorities in the shabby southern town of Deraa, protests flared and the security forces responded by mowing down demonstrators, arresting young men, and locking down the city. Sympathy uprisings began across the country, from Damascus to the coastal towns of Latakia and Banias to the central city of Homs.
Several towns remain under the control of security forces. Activists say around 800 people have been killed in clashes, with a further 27 dead in fighting near Homs since Saturday.
After hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests, the scale of the protests has fallen, but the calm is superficial and tense.
Mohammad, a 20-something from Damascus who spoke on condition that his real name not be revealed, said that he had seen security forces beating and arresting people at protests in the city center in the last month, and that he and his friends now live in fear of their brutality.
"You could lose your life, that's the bottom line," he said, adding that friends in the suburb of Muadhimiya, where the army and security forces have crushed demonstrations, said snipers had shot at a little girl who had opened a window, and that troops were breaking into houses and stealing money.