In nearby Douma, which was rebel-held for most of the war, running water was still more aspiration than reality. In the government stronghold of Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast, mothers wept beneath photographs of dead sons. More than two years after Mr. Assad retook the northern city of Aleppo, the factories and the ancient bazaars, or souks, were stirring again, but electricity was stuttering back one power-crew shift at a time.

It is not only infrastructure that needs rebuilding. The Syria we saw was missing a middle class, its members having fled or fallen down the economic ladder. The United Nations estimates that more than eight in 10 people are now living in poverty, making less than $3.10 a day per person.

Even as the displaced trickle back home, young men are still being forced into the army, and dissidents, or those connected to them, are disappearing into grim prisons. People are still fleeing the country, though their numbers are far below what they were at their height.

With no reconstruction aid coming from international donors, the Syrians we met were doing what they could to patch the bullet holes in their walls, feed their children and find a paycheck.