BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army bombarded jihadists overnight in the last area outside government control near Damascus when President Bashar al-Assad accelerated his pressure to recapture the remaining enclaves.
U. S., British and French air strikes on Saturday to punish Assad for the suspected use of chemical weapons have done nothing to slow down the advance of his forces, which are now in their strongest position since the first months of the Seven Years War.
Air strikes and shelling hit the Palestinian Yarmouk Refugee Camp and the al-Hajar al-Aswad area, which was part of a small enclave divided between warring jihadists and other rebels south of the capital.
Assad is accelerating his campaign to recapture the remaining enclaves surrounding his forces around Syria, leaving the rebels with only their two main fortresses in the northwest and southwest. [nL8N1
Western countries launched their first coordinated action against Assad on Saturday to punish him for a suspected gas attack that killed them in a raid that took Ghouta near the capital.
But the only salvo of air strikes that hit three targets far from each front had no impact on the ongoing war, which killed 500,000 people and left more than half of the Syrians homeless.
International chemical weapons organization (OVCW) inspectors who arrived in Damascus nearly a week ago were still waiting on Friday to visit the site of the suspected poison gas attack. [nS0N1QJ04H]
Syria and its ally Russia deny the use of chemical weapons in the attack on Douma. Western countries say the Syrian government, which now controls the city, is holding out the inspectors and may be manipulating evidence, both denying Damascus and Moscow.
Rebels began Thursday to withdraw from Dumayr, an enclave northeast of Damascus, under a transfer agreement with the government. Insurgents in another nearby enclave – Eastern Qalamoun – said they also agreed to retire.
Thousands of civilians, including the families of the militants, are expected to go with them to northern Syria before the territories under Assad's reign fall back to similar agreements with others being carried out across the country as the Syrian forces advance.
The U.N. has expressed concern that such "evacuations" involve the expulsion of civilians under threat of reprisals or forced recruitment, despite the government's denial.
"The U.N. expects further evictions in the near future to northern Syria from other locations controlled by non-state armed groups where negotiations are allegedly taking place," the World Union said in a humanitarian note.
The conditions in the oppositional region of northern Syria, in which the displaced people are going, are bad.
After the army retook eastern Ghouta this month in a fierce battle that began in February, the surrender of Dumayr and Qalamoun would only leave the pocket in southern Damascus, outside government control around the capital.
Yarmouk was the largest camp for Palestinian refugees in pre-war Syria. Although most of the residents have fled, up to 12,000 people remain jihadist or rebellious in their neighborhoods, said the U-N agency that helped them.
Reporting by Angus McDowall; Arrangement by Peter Graff