I should add that the Syrians are incredibly hospitable and very warm. Its easy to meet locals, and dont be surprised if they invite you for a meal. I had the good fortune to meet a few locals, and we had wonderful conversations. I was told that there is excitement these days as President Assad has begun to open the country to international investment engaging the West (particularly the U.S.) in rapprochement and liberalizing society. Although political liberalization is coming more slowly and power remains in the hands of one party rule, the discourse is opening up slightly.
Damascus is a very real place; not commercial . . . yet! You wont see Prada and Chanel stores dotting a mall and thats precisely why I encourage travelers to consider Syria as a fascinating and culturally enriching off-the-path destination.