By Tim Whewell
BBC Newsnight, Damascus
A car used by Arab League monitors was attacked in Damascus
Damascus on a rainy winter's evening. The lights are blazing, the traffic flows smoothly, the smart boutiques of the new town and the souks in the old city seem busy enough.
But for all the assurances of the government, life in the Syrian capital is far from normal.
"We don't work well, we don't sleep well," one middle-class woman, a graphic designer in her thirties, tells me. "We are scared."
She doesn't take part in street protests herself. Like many others, she thinks it is too dangerous. But she certainly supports their aim.
And those protests - once mainly in towns well away from Damascus - now spring up ever more frequently in suburbs of the capital, creeping closer and closer, it appears, to the well-guarded centre.
The impression of ever-deepening crisis is one the government is determined to resist. This week President Bashar al-Assad made what was said to be an impromptu appearance with his family on a huge city-centre square.
President al-Assad made a reportedly impromptu rally appearance
He was cheered by thousands of supporters also said to have gathered spontaneously to greet him.
"Nothing was arranged beforehand," my government minder tells me. "If people had known the president was going to appear, millions would have turned out to cheer. But he just decided to stop to talk on the square because he's that kind of person. He lives among the people. You can often see him in a local shop buying sweets for his children."
In his unscripted speech on the square, the president returned yet again to his favourite theme: Syria is threatened by a foreign conspiracy that is in league with "terrorists" within the country.
He is talking not only of Western powers such as the United States, which this week accused him of "cynicism," but also of Arab states such as Qatar, one of the chief movers behind the Arab League monitoring mission being sent to Syria.
Monitors' vehicles attacked
Qatar has now suggested the mission is so ineffective in stopping the violence that it should be withdrawn.
Anti-government protests are moving ever closer to the city centre
Speaking anonymously - because the terms of their engagement forbid them talking to the media - some of the monitors tell me they are more afraid of going into pro-government areas than into opposition strongholds.
Crowds have vented their anger on what they see as the monitors' interference in Syrian affairs.
And in the car park of the Sheraton Hotel, one of their bases, you can see the evidence of that anger - Arab League vehicles with windows smashed and plastered with stickers of Mr Assad, the bumpers caved in and tyres let down.
At the Foreign Ministry, spokesman Jihad Makdissi tells me that should not have happened. People have now been told, he says, to let the monitors work freely.
And he is also keen to stress that the president's talk of a conspiracy was "for internal consumption". Syria wants the mission to continue, he says.
But on Thursday another 18 deaths were reported in the continuing struggle between demonstrators and security forces - bringing to more than 400 the number killed since the mission began in late December.
More than 5,000 civilians have been killed, says the UN
More than 400 killed since start of Arab League mission on 26 December
UN denied access to Syria
Information gathered from NGOs, sources in Syria and Syrians who have fled
Vast majority of casualties were unarmed, but the figure may include armed defectors
Tally does not include serving members of the security forces
Source: UN's OHCHR
In the meantime, Mr Assad continues to insist that he wants dialogue with opposition forces, and he has set out what he says is a timetable for democratic reforms.
But he has been saying the same thing for months, without any sign of his government reaching out even to those elements of the highly-fractured opposition that would be prepared to talk to him.
It is a stalemate, but a dangerous one in which more and more protesters, who once insisted demonstrations must be peaceful, now believe some of their number should carry guns - not to attack the security forces, but at least to defend themselves against attack.
"The regime is launched down a cul-de-sac", one Western diplomat tells me. And many fear that at the end of it will be even more violence.
Watch Tim Whewell's full report from Damascus on Newsnight at 10.30pm on BBC Two on Friday 13 January 2012.