'The old city was tense, behind a veneer of strained normality. There were checkpoints every hundred meters or so. These were maintained not by the army, but by the National Defense Force (NDF), an Iranian-sponsored paramilitary force created to fill the gap presented by the Assad regime’s lack of loyal manpower. Young men mostly, with a sprinkling of older types and a very few girls. Supervised by Mukhabarat officers with pistols in their belts. They were suspicious of foreigners. There had already been a number of suicide attacks by members of the jihadi organizations in regime-controlled areas.
For the most part, though, the atmosphere of strained normality held. Undoubtedly, fear of the regime played its part in the exaggerated professions of loyalty and love for Bashar that one would hear. But there was also justified fear of the Islamist rebels, and what their advance would mean. And, of course, there was mainly fatigue, and the desire of people to live in their own private circle, and willingness to cope with any governing authority which appeared able to provide for that. The Syrian pound had plummeted in value since the start of the war – from 48 pounds to the US dollar in March 2011 to 625 to the dollar now. There were long queues each morning to buy subsidized bread at the state bakeries. The traffic was on the roads, the shops were open, pictures of the dictator and his family were everywhere. But all was far flimsier and more brittle than it initially appeared.
I should explain first of all how I came to be in Damascus. I have been writing about Syria now for over a decade. I have visited the country numerous times since the outbreak of its civil war in mid-2011. My visits, though, were always to the areas controlled by the Sunni Arab rebels or the Kurdish separatist forces. This was a notable gap in my coverage. I wanted to remedy it. ...'
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