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.