Some say the Arab League observers' mission has been a failure. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.
Editor's note: Cairo-based NBC News correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin is reporting from Syria this week. Follow his updates on Twitter @Aymanm
Update at 5:20 p.m. ET Wednesday: Arab League monitor in Idleb described monitoring mission there as terrifying, repeatedly coming under attack and receiving threats.
Update at 8 a.m. ET Wednesday: Ayman Mohyeldin says in a message on Twitter that he was "Taken to police station in #damascus. Despite having permits we were forced to delete video of people waiting in line."
Published at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday: Inside Syria, Day 1
DAMASCUS -- To say that Damascus suffers from a cult of personality is an understatement. Arriving in Damascus airport, there is no mistaking who runs Syria: "Doctor Bashar al-Assad."
In the short walk from the airplane to the car, I counted more than 200 posters plastered on the walls, columns, doors and pretty much everywhere my eye turned. All I could see were pictures carrying the image of Assad. From planting olive trees to donning full military dress, Assad is everywhere. Even customs officials processing our paperwork were humming pro-Assad songs.
A few hours later, at a dinner with old and new friends in a Damascus restaurant, I am told it's not just the president's image that is ubiquitous, it’s the entire security apparatus that's keeping a watchful eye on what is happening in Damascus. "Be careful what you say and when you say it," a friend tells me. "Never speak freely with a taxi driver or start a random conversation about what is going on," I am advised.
Syrian President Bassar Al-Assad vowed to crack down against those he blamed for trying to topple his regime. His forces shot at protestors and in a speech, he attacked the Arab League who've sent monitors into Syria. ITN's John Ray reports.
But despite the warning, there is a certain ease by which the current crisis comes to the surface of any discussion. Criticism of the government is rampant at one restaurant where conversations flow from table to table. An occasional silence interrupts the chats as diners peek over the shoulders to ensure no one is paying attention too closely. "It's OK, don’t worry, the regime has bigger problems right now than to worry what is being said on every table. We know everyone here," my friend says, nudging me to keep on eating.
Over the course of the next several hours, I hear about "Syria's uprising" from those living it daily, including its pitfalls, its weaknesses, its strengths. Lessons learned and gains made. In the background, a TV plays Arab music songs, and then a red ticker on the screen flashes a breaking news bulletin. In unison, heads across the restaurant turn: An explosion has been reported in the Damascus neighborhood of Nahr El Aisha. People turn back to their meals.
Damascus is a city on edge. There is an uneasy nervousness in the city. Yes, shops are open, and restaurants and cafés bustle with patrons. But that’s up to a certain time, and for those who know Damascus, it’s a few hours less than normal, and a few hours less than what it was just a few months ago. There is an unofficial curfew, imposed by residents who are weary of a different city after dark. There are parts of the city where the risks of travel are too dangerous at night. As we drive around one roundabout in the city, we veer on to a side street. "This side of the circle is safe. If you drive a kilometer in the other side, there are tensions between the residents and the security," my friend tells me.
Sana/Handout / EPA
An image of President Bashir al-Assad watches over the scene of a pro-government rally at Sabe Bahrat square in Damascus in December.
The government says "armed gangs" have inched closer to the capital, frequently attacking security checkpoints at night. Several attacks have already happened in the heart of the capital. And even government employees concede certain routes in and out of the city have become too dangerous to traverse. Anti-government activists say momentum is on their side as pressure mounts on the government, with political and military defections increasing. When night falls, security forces crack down on neighborhoods close to the capital where anti-government sentiment runs high.
Along one of the capital's main streets, one side of the street is well lit. The other is dark. Local residents tell me power outages are becoming more frequent across the city. There are rolling blackouts and increasing shortages of fuel and gas. Factories are shutting down, exports are halting. The value of the Syrian currency is plummeting and inflation is skyrocketing as a result of international and Arab sanctions that are aimed at punishing Assad's government. But the sanctions are clearly taking a toll on the daily lives of Syrians.
But their daily lives go on, it seems for now, as routine as they can be in the middle of a 10-month uprising against the rule of the man seen everywhere in Damascus.