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Syria regime cements hold on capital, strategic areas

BEIRUT -- After watching much of Syria's territory slip into rebel hands, the Bashar Assad regime is focusing on the basics: shoring up its hold on Damascus and the strip of land connecting the capital with the Mediterranean coast.

In the past week, government troops have overrun villages near the Lebanese border and suburbs of Damascus, including two districts west of the capital where, activists say, regime forces killed more than 100 people. The advances have improved the regime's footing in strategic areas that are seen as crucial to its survival.

Assad's government has little choice at this point in the war, analysts say. Rebels have captured much of northern and eastern Syria, seizing control of military bases, hydroelectric dams, border crossings and even a provincial capital. Those areas are home to most of the country's oil fields, and the losses have deprived the regime of badly needed cash and fuel for its war machine.

But those provinces -- Raqqa, Hassakeh and Deir el-Zoura -- are hundreds of miles from the capital. Rebel advances there pose no direct threat to the regime's hold on Damascus, the ultimate prize in the civil war.

Instead, it has used its remaining air bases and military outposts in those areas to shell and bomb the territory it has lost in an attempt to forestall the opposition from establishing an interim administration in the rebel-held regions.

"What's important for the regime is not to leave any buffer zone, or any security zone for the rebels," said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut.

The opposition received a boost Monday when the European Union lifted its oil embargo on Syria, providing more economic support to the rebels. The decision will allow for crude exports from rebel-held territory, the import of oil and gas production technology, and investments in the Syrian oil industry, the EU said in a statement.

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