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Assad steps up efforts to crush last besieged enclaves

DMASCUS: The Syrian government stepped up its efforts on Thursday to retake the opposition’s last besieged enclaves, as rebels prepared to withdraw from one and a newspaper reported an ultimatum against another.
President Bashar al-Assad scored a major victory this month by retaking eastern Ghouta, the biggest rebel stronghold near Damascus, putting his forces in by far their strongest position since the early months of the seven-year-old civil war.
The United States, Britain and France launched a volley of air strikes on Saturday against three Syrian targets in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons strike during the Ghouta assault.
The limited Western intervention, far from any contested battlefront, has shown no sign of having any impact on the ground, where Assad’s forces have pressed on with his offensive. But it showed Western powers were ready to act outside the jurisdiction of the United Nations Security Council.
The last rebels withdrew from eastern Ghouta hours after the Western bombing. Since then, the government has focused on regaining four less populous encircled enclaves.
Much of northwestern Syria is still under the control of Turkish-backed forces or militant groups, however, while a U.S-Russian de-escalation zone along the country’s southwestern borders has given some protection to Western-backed rebels.
Israel has warned it would not allow Iranian-backed militias operating alongside the Syrian army in several areas to expand their influence in that strategic border strip.
U.S. backed Kurdish-led forces are also in control of much of the area east of the Euphrates river, where Syria’s main oil and gas reserves lie.
Diplomacy this week has focused on accusations that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons use in Douma, the last town to hold out against the government advance in eastern Ghouta.

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