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Last Updated: Monday, 16 May, 2005, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Discovering Syria's red lines
By James Reynolds
BBC News, in Syria

In a courtyard in the old city of Damascus a group of intellectuals and foreign diplomats sits down to lunch.

It's three in the afternoon, and they're in no particular rush. On the table there is wine from Lebanon and fruit from local groves.

Syrian cafe
Syrians now experience more freedom than ever before

The talk is of change in the Middle East. Syria's one party state, led by Bashar al-Assad, has begun to show some tolerance of dissent. But such tolerance has its limits. In this country there are still red lines most people just don't cross.

"There are two taboos," says Sami Mubayed, a political writer. "One is sectarian affairs. And the other is the President of the Republic. These are two red lines that nobody can cross."

They're worth a test. So I approach the host of the lunch, a prominent lawyer and reformer, and ask her if she feels able to criticise the president openly and even call for his resignation.

"I don't believe that my president should step down," she says. "I care because he's my schoolmate and I do really like him and his wife very much. I hate - and I'm sorry to use this very strong word - I hate the old guard."

Hidden restrictions

At night I head into a crowded backgammon hall in central Damascus to meet the prominent dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Mr Saleh is a writer who has spent 16 years in Syrian jails for opposing the regime. For now, he is out of prison, and he is keen to hack away at this country's hidden restrictions.

"No one is completely safe in Syria," he says, "but perhaps I can express my opinions and ideas more freely than at any other time before."

I ask him how he recognises the limits to his opinions when he writes: "We have flexible red lines, but people are now trespassing these red lines. I don't respect them because if you live under them you will always be like this."

President Bashar al-Assad
Criticising President Bashar al-Assad is the main taboo for Syrians

A day later I head off to another lunch, this time in the dusty town of Suweida, an hour's drive from Damascus. A young doctor has just finished his two years of military service and his family's gathered to welcome him back. I'm shown into the main room.

"We're not friends with Blair. Tell him not to come here," says one of the family, with a smile.

The many failings of foreign leaders appears to be a safe topic for small talk with an outsider. But the mood changes when I speak to the doctor and try - as delicately as I can - to edge my way towards Syria's red lines.

"Do you think the current government is on the right track?" I ask.

"I think it's trying to be on the right track," replies my host.

"What more should it do?" I press on.

"This is something difficult to talk about with guests that we meet for the first time," the doctor says.

Touchy subject

At this point the doorbell rings and the doctor gets up. Then he comes back, and sits down, looking uncomfortable.

"I wanted to apologise for the what I just said," he continues. "I want to clarify one thing: I think that the internal problems that we are facing in this country should be internalised until they're solved."

It didn't come as a surprise. All over Suweida there are reminders that the regime is nearby. On street corners and buildings there are portraits of Bashar al-Assad and his late father.

Inside a roundabout, stands a giant statue of the president's late brother Basil, on horseback. In this town and in this country you are never more than a few streets away from the face of the leader and his family.

A little later on, after lunch is over, the mood in the doctor's family home cheers. And the conversation stays well clear of Syrian politics.

In this one-party state there are those who are now able to chip away at Syria's red lines. But the boundaries still exist. And in the dusty corners of Suweida, never far from the gaze of the leader, people still prefer to watch what they say.

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