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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 May, 2005, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Reform and taboos in Syrian politics
BBC's James Reynolds
By James Reynolds
BBC News, Damascus

At the end of April 2005, Syria completed the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon. However, as James Reynolds discovers, there is still pressure in Damascus for further change.

Map of Syria
The Syrian army has just left Lebanon.

So I guess it is now safe for me to say that I once played an involuntary micro-part in Syria's military occupation of its neighbour.

A few years ago I was driving with friends round the hills of northern Lebanon.

We were stopped at a Syrian army checkpoint and told that a soldier needed a ride to the south.

Without asking, the soldier got into the car with his bag and gun.

And we found ourselves, for a few hours, doing the work of the Syrian army, transporting one of its soldiers across Lebanon.

Well, the soldier and his army have now gone home.

So I headed back to northern Lebanon to have a look at what life was like without the neighbours.

Skiing lessons

My colleague and I were driven up the mountains in a battered Mercedes that had clearly known better days, possibly in the era of the horse and cart.

Our driver, Abu Ziad, winced all day with toothache.

This was fairly surprising, because he did not appear to have any teeth to begin with.

We reached a ski resort and went looking for anyone to speak to.

Ideally we were after Lebanon's jet set - the elite who are said to go skiing in the mountains in the morning, swimming in the Mediterranean in the afternoon and nightclubbing in Beirut in the evening.

But there was almost no-one about. The ski chalets were empty.

Syria has been shaken by its quick retreat from Lebanon
We went into one hotel lobby to find a man sitting on a sofa wearing nothing but a tattered blue dressing gown and a trilby hat.

He was tending a cigarette and a cut to his finger. There was a trail of bloody tissues on the table.

He introduced himself as Tony, the hotel's owner.

I asked him how he felt about Syria's withdrawal. He waved his hand.

"It's a good thing. Everyone thinks that. Of course."

But then he appeared to get a little wistful.

"You know, I taught the son of President Hafez al-Assad how to ski," he said, "Basil. He was a good skier. But he's dead now."

And we paused, possibly in memory of the skiing talent of the elder son of the late Syrian leader.

But the mood soon picked up when Tony took me to another room to admire a wall-size picture of his daughter skiing with the Italian Olympic champion, Alberto Tomba.

Outside, the mountains were streaked with snow.

A Lebanese army base was just up the hill and Syria was just on the other side of the peaks.

'Red lines'

A few days later I made the short journey over the border.

Syria has been shaken by its quick retreat from Lebanon.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Any criticism of President Bashar al-Assad is still frowned on
The regime of Bashar al-Assad is coming under pressure to reform, to legalise political parties.

But there are still plenty of red lines that most do not dare cross.

In this one-party state you can now attack the government, but you cannot criticise the president.

I learned this on my first afternoon in Damascus.

I tagged along at a lunch of intellectuals and diplomats, held in a courtyard in the old city.

It was three in the afternoon, there was plenty of Lebanese wine, and no-one seemed to be in any particular rush to go anywhere.

"What do you think of the government?" I asked one lawyer, who has made her name as a reformer.

"I hate the old guard. We want reform," she said.

"So, what about the president, would you ever call on him to step down?"

Her look changed. This was not a discussion she wanted to have.

"I don't want my president to step down," she said quickly. "I really like him and his wife a lot."

'Big changes'

A little later on, at night, I went to see someone who was determined to ignore Syria's red lines.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a writer who has spent many years in jail for opposing the regime.

Posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
The reminders of the one-party state are all around

We met in a crowded backgammon hall not far from the parliament building.

"I was last arrested in January, but they couldn't do anything to me," he said proudly.

"They are weaker than me now. There will be big changes soon."

In his enthusiasm, he knocked over a glass of water.

No-one paid much attention to him. The backgammon was clearly too important.

I left the hall and wandered through the city.

On the surface at least, Damascus can come across as a fairly normal place.

You can buy foreign newspapers, you can log on to the internet, and there are many bars happy to serve you any kind of alcohol you want and plenty of kinds you do not.

This includes a cocktail called "The Journalist" made up of gin, vermouth, Campari and a desultory glace cherry, sunk to the bottom of the glass.

But the reminders of the one-party state are all around.

By the side of the road, on buildings, inside car windows and above doorways, there are countless portraits of the president, his late father and also his late brother Basil, the man who was taught how to ski in the mountains of Lebanon.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 21 May 2005, at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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