In Damascus, an uneasy stability boosts Syria's Assad

In Damascus, it is easy to forget the war. The airstrikes, the ruins and starvation, sometimes only few miles away, seem distant and unseen.

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Looking out from the Syrian capital these days, one can understand why President Bashar Assad would be in no hurry to make concessions at peace talks in Geneva, let alone consider stepping down as the opposition demands.

In Damascus, it is easy to forget the war. The airstrikes, the ruins and starvation, sometimes only few miles away, seem distant and unseen. Since a partial cease-fire went into effect at the end of February, the mortar shells from opposition-held suburbs have all but stopped.

With the road to the loyalist coast and most of central Syria completely cleared of insurgents, Assad has guaranteed the survival of a rump state that he could rule over should the war continue for a long time. Even if Assad's forces have little chance of regaining large parts of the country in the near term, Russia's military intervention changed the conflict's course in their favor and has boosted their confidence.

"People are much more relaxed than before, we feel safer and more secure," said Maha Arnouz, a student walking with a friend through the capital's bustling Hamadiyah souk, located inside the old walled city.

The bazaar, like the rest of Damascus, has changed in the past few years. Soldiers sit at the entrance underneath a large portrait of Assad, screening passers-by. Male pedestrians are patted down by armed men at checkpoints in its narrow side streets, a jarring sight next to centuries-old shops selling spices, sweets and soaps.

Outside, people shout over the din of power generators spouting toxic fumes whenever the power is off - at least 10 hours a day. In Bab Touma, a mainly Christian quarter of Damascus' Old City popular with tourists before the war, a Hezbollah fighter searches vehicles at a checkpoint. Posters of "martyrs" from pro-government popular defense militias line the walls.

Diners are unfazed. On a recent day, women in long-sleeved clothes and headscarves and others in short dresses sat around dinner tables with friends and family as the voice of Lebanese singer Fairouz reverberated in the background. Diners chain-smoked or puffed at water pipes, at one point breaking out in a happy birthday rendition for a celebrating group at a nearby table.

New restaurants and cafes have opened where people drink wine, eat or play cards. Only a 20-minute drive away, clashes break out between extremist groups in the Yarmouk Camp neighborhood. The last round, which lasted more than a week, left approximately 6,000 civilian families with severe shortages of food and water, according to the U.N. The Yarmouk neighborhood has been ravaged by fighting between the ISIS group and al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, while government forces regularly shell it from outside.

Daraya, a rebel-held area about 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the southwest, has been besieged by government forces for more than three years. The U.N.'s humanitarian chief said people have been reduced to eating grass because Syria's government hasn't approved aid to besieged areas which are "mere minutes' drive away from U.N. warehouses in Damascus."

Assad controls about a third of the country, but that territory comprises most of Syria's major cities. Rebels and other armed groups, including ISIS and the Nusra Front, control the rest. Those areas have continued to see various degrees of fighting, and in the northern province of Aleppo, the cease-fire has all but collapsed.

But within Assad's third, the connections have grown more stable as military gains widen the breathing room. People move easily between the capital and the Mediterranean coastal provinces of Tartous and Latakia, and roads to Homs and Palmyra to the east have become safer.

Damascus is among the few cities that have been largely spared the violence that has ravaged Homs, Aleppo and other cities. Visitors arriving from Beirut are greeted by posters of Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah militia fighting alongside the Syrian army.

"Eagles do not kneel," reads the sign on a poster with the faces of Assad, his brother Maher, who leads the army's elite 4th Armored Division, and Nasrallah.

The government takes pains to maintain the semblance of normalcy. Police direct traffic, streets are kept clean and parks are impeccably maintained. Last week, authorities organized parliamentary elections in government-held parts of the country. Turnout, according to officials, was about 57 percent.

"They thought the Syrian army will get tired, but five years on, the Syrian army is fighting everywhere and is achieving victories with support from its friends and allies," the deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told The Associated P ress. He insisted the government will once again control "every inch" of Syria.

This is unlikely in the near future and would require a long-term commitment from Moscow, which is not guaranteed. Even if that were to happen, Syria has come so undone that experts doubt its communities can be stitched back together.

For now, Assad enjoys the support of his powerful allies and can afford to dig in his heels at peace talks in Geneva. Despite an announced drawback, Russia continues to support Assad militarily and with airstrikes in northern Syria. On a trip last week to Palmyra, where Russian airstrikes helped troops drive out ISIS militants, Russian soldiers could be seen throughout the ancient town.

Assad still retains the support of a significant segment of society, some begrudgingly and only because the alternative, if there is one, is seen as worse. Many here regard the opposition with complete disdain or as paid agents of foreign powers.

In Damascus, the talk invariably turns to the war, but few people still have the energy to debate what went wrong. The main concern is the Syrian pound, which has depreciated rapidly in the past few weeks, with the price of a dollar now hovering around 500 Syrian pounds on the black market, as opposed to 47 when the conflict began five years ago.

Inflation is out of control. Prices for basic goods have soared, changing almost on a daily basis, including staples that many can now hardly afford.

All agree the war will take a long time to end, although more people now think that Assad will prevail, or at least finish his term. In the meantime, people are determined to keep living their lives.

Mustafa Ali, a sculptor and founder of an art center in Damascus' Jewish quarter, hosts Syrian children who learn dancing, drawing and ceramics every Saturday. "I am trying to create a generation that has no sectarian or religious affiliations," he said.

At the centuries-old Nofara cafe, people waited for the hakawati, a traditional storyteller of old Arab legends, to take up his seat and begin speaking. Asked who the new storyteller is, after the most famous of the few remaining hakawatis passed away, the waiter quipped: "It is not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, I can tell you that," in reference to the ISIS leader.

At the landmark Bakdash ice cream parlor inside the Hamadiyah souk, workers making their distinctive mix of milk, gum Arabic and sahlab could barely keep up with the demand from the crowd of customers.

"Summer or winter, bombs or not, it's the same here," said Iyas Ammar, as he pounded the ice cream into shape with a wooden mallet.

"Here it's another planet."

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