Wartime Damascus is a city of sandbagged checkpoints where lines of idling vehicles await inspection by soldiers and militiamen carrying Kalashnikovs and bomb detectors. Concrete blast walls surround government buildings, where visitors go through airport-style examination. There is the frequent thump of government artillery aimed at rebel positions, which send mortars crashing into the city centre and other loyalist districts.
The relatively low-key security around President Bashar al-Assad therefore came as a surprise to members of an Australian “solidarity delegation” visiting the Syrian capital. They answered an invitation to meet the President on a cold morning just before Christmas — finally splashed across the front page of The Australian last week, prompting fierce condemnation from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and others — during a week of meetings with government ministers and religious leaders.