By Angus McDowall
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Mohammed Abu al-Khair sends 25 buses a day from the Syrian capital Damascus to Aleppo, an eight-hour trip that until recently took up to two days.
The reduction in the journey time is a result of military gains by the Syrian army which have eased the movement of goods and people in government-held areas after years of paralysis because of the civil war that began in 2011.
The opening of roads that for years were unsafe has also brought some economic payoff for President Bashar al-Assad from the army's military successes.
(GRAPHIC: Highways across Syria - https://tmsnrt.rs/2N6mYlw)
"Previously it could take two days to reach Aleppo. It was very dangerous for the drivers," said Abu al-Khair, who oversees operations for Amir bus company, including from Damascus to Aleppo, a city 310 km (192 miles) north of Damascus which was an industrial hub before the war.
Vehicles now travel day and night, not only in the half of Syria controlled by Assad, but also to the quarter of it held by a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias.
Syria's economy has been shattered. Whole towns lie in ruins, many workers have fled, been killed or gone to fight, and international sanctions hobble external trade.
But Assad is turning his attention toward a gradual economic recovery in areas he controls.
Finance Minister Mamoun Hamdan said last month that economic activity had picked up significantly, and that a move to issue foreign currency deposits was aimed at funding trade operations as the government moved towards reconstruction.
Internal Trade Minister Abdullah Gharbi told Reuters that internal trade had risen by more than 30 percent since the government retook major roads.
"It's easier. Less time, less risk," said Majd Wehbeh, executive manager of Compass Freight and Logistics in Damascus.
For much of the seven-year conflict safe, rapid travel was unthinkable as fighting cut major routes and splintered the country into dozens of warring fiefdoms.
Conditions are still difficult - far worse than the situation before 2011. Most borders are closed. Roads are controlled by numerous checkpoints at which, companies say, soldiers routinely demand bribes.
Yet the situation is incomparable to earlier periods of the war, when travellers might be kidnapped or killed in clashes, and many areas were unreachable.
The old network of major highways is now open from the Lebanese and - currently closed - Jordanian border through Damascus, Homs and Hama, to the ports of Tartous and Latakia, and to Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria.
It had been difficult and dangerous to reach Deir al-Zor, deep in Islamic State territory. Abdullah al-Mallah, buying a bus ticket for his hometown of al-Mayadin near Deir al-Zor, said he now travelled between it and Damascus every week or two.
When he fled Islamic State rule for Damascus in 2016, it took weeks to cross the desert. It now takes nine hours and a $12 ticket. His family might join him for a trip soon, he said.
Farah bus company runs five or six buses there a day. It occasionally sent buses even when Islamic State controlled the desert, its manager Yahya Khatib said, charging $100 a ticket.
Sometimes it took a bus two months to find a safe route back to government territory. "There's no danger now. Things are normal," he said.
Assad's military gains this year suddenly eased conditions, freight and bus companies said.
The recapture of eastern Ghouta, located by the main highway that runs north from Damascus, meant traffic no longer had to traverse a 90-minute diversion through the hills outside the capital.
Qadmous company carries cargo between Damascus and the coast. "During the war we reduced our work by a lot. Now it's 40 or 50 percent higher," said Michel Dagher, the company overseer.
He and the Compass Freight manager Wehbeh both said the number of army checkpoints, as well as journey times, had been reduced by a lot.
International routes are still blocked. Syria's only working border now is with Lebanon, though there are talks to reopen the Nassib frontier with Jordan.
The main crossing with Iraq is blocked by a U.S. military base on the Damascus-Baghdad highway. Another crossing at Albu Kamal is open for military, but not general use. Syria's border with Turkey is open only in rebel-held areas.
Internally, it is still split. From government territory, it is possible to travel into areas controlled by a Kurdish-led administration in the northeast. In Damascus, bus companies advertised daily journeys there.
But it is hard to reach rebel-held territory in Idlib and northern Aleppo. Travellers are dropped off near a safe foot corridor across the front line, a bus driver said.
As the internal economy gradually recovers, the government wants to shift more freight off the roads onto more efficient rail lines.
The main Damascus station reopened this month, but only to serve a short route to a trade fair. Najib Fares, head of Syrian railways, said work had started to restore the main line.
"We are maintaining, repairing and reconstructing the railway line... there is very major damage on this line," he said.
As a train pulled into the platform behind Fares, a line of shell-smashed buildings stretched back to the horizon and rusted, shell-damaged carriages lay idle in a siding.
It was a reminder of how difficult Syria's recovery will be, and that the war still intrudes in many regions.
The highways to Aleppo from Latakia and Hama in Idlib province remain in rebel hands and travel there now involves a long detour along narrow roads.
Kamal, a Hama-based bus driver who did not want to give his surname, said restoring that road would cut hours of journey time. Army victories had already saved hours in driving between Hama and Damascus, he said.
"It used to be one trip per day and then return the next day. Now I come and go in the same day. So do some of my passengers," he said.
(Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh, Editing by Timothy Heritage)