It's a sunny weekend afternoon in Damascus, with a freak chill in the air. Thousands of ordinary families have gathered in parks and under the shade of trees, with their picnic baskets, putting a question mark on reports of Arab Spring fever in the Middle East country of Syria.
In the capital, it's business as usual, with little sign of mass protests on the streets. On Friday, a national holiday, families, with children in tow, turned out in full flow at parks across the capital. On Saturday, the mood in the city was equally laidback.
Ghassin, a 40-something father of two, says they are out to enjoy themselves and people are not in the least bothered about security threats. "It's perfectly safe here. No threat to our lives," he said, admitting that peaceful protests are happening in some parts of the country and in some isolated pockets on the outskirts of Damascus.
In a fluid situation, there are competing versions of truth.
As the picnickers lazed in the sun and children frolicked, protests were reported in some suburbs of Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo. Disturbances were also reported from Hama and Homs and in the southern province of Daraa. Protesters spilled from mosques onto the streets, chanting for President Bashar al-Assad's ouster, according to opposition activists.
While the sincerity of the Assad regime about hastening political reforms is being doubted, one can see posters of candidates on street corners and walls. There is no loud sloganeering and the usual colourful carnival that one associates with boisterous democracies like India, but people are talking in quiet whispers about whom they will vote for next month.
Some would say it's an uneasy lull before the storm, but the difference between what one gets to see on the international news networks and the situation on the streets can't be more radically different.
A seasoned observer of the Syrian scene, who did not wish to be named, attributes this to a full-blown propaganda warfare, with the Western powers trying to dislodge a defiant unfriendly regime and powerful news networks being pressed into service to advance the agenda. It's not just Western networks like CNN, but it's part of the larger information politics in the Arab world as well, with some saying channels like Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are joining this game of manipulating public perception.
A shopkeeper in downtown Damascus smiled ironically when asked about whether there is a mass uprising in the country. "Where did you see it? On CNN?" he asked sarcastically.
According to UN estimates, around 230,000 Syrians have been displaced and more than 9,000 killed since the uprising against Assad erupted more than a year ago. Syrian authorities contest this figure and attribute the killings to what they call armed terrorist groups masquerading as opposition and reformers.
Ever since the protests for reforms started in Syria 13 months ago in the wake of the Tahrir Square revolution and the fire of revolt was lit by a Tunisian vendor, many thought Damascus will be the next target. But the Assad regime, under tremendous pressure from the West to stick to the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, looks set to survive, for now.
The UN Security Council is expected to meet later Saturday and vote on a resolution that would increase the size of a UN monitoring mission in Syria. The draft text may authorise the deployment of up to 300 unarmed military observers to enforce a fragile ceasefire.
The draft text is pressing for an immediate implementation of the Annan plan, and demands that all parties, including the opposition, stop the violence. It would further authorise the deployment of up to 300 unarmed military observers, who would be expected to ensure compliance with a shaky ceasefire imposed last week.
(Manish Chand can be contacted at email@example.com)