Damascus has never been a simple city, and Syria never a simple country. But what would you expect in a country which has two cities claiming to be the oldest inhabited cities on Earth.
So when Syria reforms and cracks down on dissent at the same time, it’s easy to become confused.
For the first time Syria is covered in portraits of Bashar Al-Assad – Bashar, not Hafez. He refused to succombe to the cult of personality when he first came to power, but now he’s all over the place in dictator-like poses.
But at the same time, there are more and more adverts for consumer goods. Bashar vies for space with Syriatel.
Criticism of the government is more loud in the coffee shops and markets, but campaigners are being arrested on a scale not seen for years.
Some see the government’s willingness to crack down on a feeling that they’re out of the international spotlight – they’ve given in on just about every international demand. George Bush and Condoleeza Rice’s demands on Syria sound ever-more hollow. Serge Brammertz, the UN’s replacement for Detlev Mehlis, the UN investigator into the murder of Rafiq Al-Hariri, is far less confrontational. Bashar has even agreed to be interviewed by Brammertz.
There are more reformers in government than ever before, but less reform than at any point in the last two years.
And then there are those traffic light timers. What’s that about?