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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 February, 2005, 17:21 GMT
Syria's silent questions
The BBC's Orla Guerin
By Orla Guerin
BBC News, Damascus

For more than 100 years, the ice cream lovers of Damascus have gathered at Bakdash - an ice cream parlour born long before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Women walk past a poster of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus
Bashar al-Assad is a common sight - a more benign one than his father

Today, as then perhaps, it is a no-frills sort of place - Formica chairs and tables, with simple lighting - but the snowy mounds of ice cream are still beaten by hand, with massive wooden mallets.

Bakdash is a place of ritual and tradition, but not a place of secrets. Patrons eat under the deadpan gaze of Syria's young leader - Bashar al-Assad.

He looks down from framed portraits on several of the walls. His eyes, and ears, seem to be all around.

As soon as we began asking questions of the customers, someone appeared to ask questions of us.

A man from the security services, our translator said, who did not interfere, just wanted to know what we were doing.

In the days of Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, he probably would have stopped us. Under Assad the son, we were free to continue, though not everyone felt free to respond.

Concerns voiced and unvoiced

We wanted to know how Syrians felt about the critical refrain from Washington - the demands that keep coming like waves beating against the shore - calls for the regime to prevent foreign fighters entering Iraq, to embrace democracy, to get out of neighbouring Lebanon.

This is still a place where it pays to keep quiet
A young man at a corner table seemed to ready to speak. He had fluent English and a crumpled suit.

When I told him the topic, he hesitated, then bowed his head and apologised profusely. "I'm so very sorry," he said. "But these are political issues, and what I say might get me into trouble."

Huda, a young woman whose long hair was uncovered and whose face was made up, spoke to us willingly. "We are afraid," she said.

"The Americans are making a plan. It's not the same as their plan for Iraq, but they are looking for a means to target us."

'Inferno of accusation'

It was almost a disappointment when no-one followed us into the souk, an ancient labyrinth of dust and shadows, scarred by time.

An anti-Syria sign held among a crowd in Beirut after the killing of Rafik Hariri
The killing of Rafik Hariri generated a firestorm of claims against Syria
At its edge is the majesty of the Omayyad Mosque, face to face with a Roman arch kept aloft by fractured columns.

Inside the market, shops little wider than a doorway sell necessities to the locals and tease the tourists with engraved silver bangles and jade necklaces.

Apricots and nuts and spices are dished out onto scales from fat sacks which dot the cobbled stones. Here too you find the occasional portrait of the president - though unlike some Arab leaders, he is apparently unwilling to adorn every flat surface.

This week - apart from the portraits - Bashar al-Assad was little seen, as an inferno of accusation built around him.

Damascus was taking the heat for the killing of the Lebanese billionaire Rafik Hariri - guilty or not - and facing growing international demands to pull its forces out of Lebanon.

And those demands are echoed on the inside. In a sleek and stylish art gallery, I met some of the Syrians brave enough to speak out. A group of men arrived one by one - all middle-aged and accomplished.

Five of the six had been jailed by the regime. They are among more than 100 Syrian intellectuals who signed a petition calling for a pullout from Lebanon. I asked if that had brought trouble to their door.

"We've had no problems yet," said a writer called Yassin with a resigned sort of smile. "But that doesn't mean we won't meet problems in the future."

This is still a place where it pays to keep quiet. On my last visit, I met two leading human rights activists - men who, between them, had spent 20 years in jail, some of it in the same cell.

Red lines

We were able to talk publicly in a popular cafe, where Syrians play backgammon and smoke apple-scented tobacco in ornamental pipes.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Some question whether the power really lies with President Assad
The men were not afraid to be interviewed, but they told me they were still under surveillance by the regime. One was no longer welcome at his work place. The other was prevented from travelling abroad.

The silent question in Syria is whether Assad the younger runs the apparatus of state, or the apparatus runs him.

When I tried to ask the group in the art gallery, there was nervous laughter and no reply. The red line may have moved in Syria, but it still exists. Now it rings the president, about whom nothing bad can be said out loud.

An eloquent Western diplomat, both savvy and sage, believes the Americans do not want to topple Syria's leader. "They don't want regime change here," he told me. "They want regime change of behaviour."

The consensus in Syria seems to be that no-one can be sure where things are headed, and that includes the president.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 26 February, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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