Syrian children herd sheep at a cemetery next to damaged buildings in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on April 13, 2017. / AFP / Sameer Al-Doumy
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Backed by Russian air power and allied militiamen on the ground, Syrian troops have recaptured entire cities from rebels and ISIS extremists in the past year, including the key cities of Aleppo, Homs and Palmyra.Yet for the past three years, President Bashar Assad's forces have been unable to free opposition-held neighborhoods of the capital Damascus, where rebel fighters have built a labyrinth of secret underground tunnels, beyond the reach of airstrikes and connected to opposition-held suburbs farther out.During that period, vegetables and daily products were allowed out of the neighborhoods into Damascus and in return the government allowed food and other products into the neighborhoods.That allowed government troops to turn their attention elsewhere and in December government forces and their allies captured rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, marking Assad's biggest victory of the six-year war. Opposition activists say that some of these troops will be used in the battle to capture the Damascus neighborhoods and eastern Ghouta in what would boost the security belt around Damascus and ease pressure on the capital.
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