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.