In the bitter cold and rain, the frontier on the road to Damascus from Beirut they are taking no chances.

Although they are generous with the delicious Turkish coffee and camomile tea, every bag and every bag within bag will be gone through. The regime may be under threat, but they are nothing if not professional.

It can take some hours, but soon you are free to roll on the road in the winding half-hour journey down to Damascus from the Chouf mountains.

And then I find myself in a place changed profoundly since our last visit in the summer. The concrete barricades and wire mesh barriers are all the more prominent – not least, all around our hotel, the traffic in the city centre stifled to a crawl because of the large number of police and army checkpoints.

All around the city centre, even a casual look at the bazaars will tell you at least half the shops are closed.

My friend, whom we will call Mohammed to protect him, embraces me sadly and says he is off to take a “long holiday, Mr Alex” in Europe. The subtext is obvious, and nobody needs to ask why.

In a country where close on half a million people have fled the war, I now find my own friends are leaving Damascus and will not be back for some time.

At street level, every now and then the roll of what you might think is thunder on a glowering, cold, rainy day. But it is not thunder. It is another barrage from a MIG fighter bomber as the government systematically and daily pulverises the northern, eastern and, yes, southern suburbs of Damascus.

It is at war on a daily basis with its own capital. More than 19 months of war have come to this.

I stand now, looking out of the smoke rising from the last air strike, perhaps a couple of miles south east of my hotel, and I note how much closer in to the city centre the smoke is from the barrages we watched daily from here back in the summer.

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