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Is It New-Think or Old-Think?

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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.

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