IT is sometimes hard to orient yourself in Syria these days, especially after a protracted absence.
Reading the newspapers, which now print news as well as diatribes, talking to the growing number of Syrians who dare to talk to foreigners, or simply walking the increasingly congested streets of the capital, it is clear that things are changing. But it is not always clear exactly what.
``We are in a transitional period,'' one Western diplomat explains. ``You get both old-think and new-think at the same time.''
Evidence of the old-think is only too apparent. Syrian authorities have never been comfortable with Western journalists - they used to ban them from the country and try to have them shot in Beirut - and officials here are as talkative as clams.
Afraid of straying from the official line, they defer, apologetically, to their minister, who is invariably too busy for an interview. And in days like these, when the Middle East peace talks are at a delicate stage, the problem is compounded: Only President Hafez al-Assad and a handful of his closest advisers are really sure what the line is. No one else has the authority, or the courage, to speak in public.
Ordinary citizens are not allowed to talk to foreigners, unless they have permission from the secret police, or report to them on the conversation afterward. That doesn't stop people talking, so long as you promise not to publish their names. And when they do, they tell you Syria is changing.
``You get the sense that there is an iron fist. It's there, and they can always tighten it,'' says one prominent intellectual. ``But they have relaxed it.'' That shows, he explains, in the way that books that formally are banned in Syria circulate quite freely, and in the criticism of the government that people voice in private conversations.
The press too - despite being rigidly controlled - is publishing unprecedented criticism of the government, though editorialists are still careful to censure administrative failings rather than policies.
Such failings are not hard to spot in a system where bureaucrats are discouraged from taking initiative. Though power cuts had been hobbling the country for nearly a year, for example, only this summer did the government begin to do anything about them. Why? Because President Assad found out about the problem. How did he find out? He looked out the window of his mountaintop palace one night, the story goes, and Damascus, which should have been a sea of light below, was black. Only when he demanded an explanation did his courtiers own up.
It is hard to call this lightening of the political atmosphere anything so deliberate as a ``liberalization'' of the Syrian system, which is still firmly enough under Assad's thumb that nobody dreams of launching any opposition. But it is clear that since the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Syria without superpower cover, Assad's efforts to mend his fences with Washington have prompted him to loosen up. He can no longer afford to ignore Western human rights pressure, for example, with the impunity he once relished.
At the same time, the power balance in the ``military-mercantile complex'' that rules the country appears to be shifting slowly. The Army commanders have been forced by economic necessity to liberalize the economy, and consequently their merchant allies have grown richer. It won't be long before traders start to ask for political influence to match their economic strength, Syrians say, and that will generate new political shock waves.
In the meantime, it will take a lot of wriggling for Syria to get comfortable in the new world circumstances, and in the end, only peace with Israel will guarantee the victory of new-think over old-think. And no one here is betting when that will come.