Analysts say the rebels there remain far from their goal of tipping the balance in the capital their way. “I really do believe that the regime can hold Damascus until the bitter end,” says Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. “Not all of it. They already don’t hold all of it. But they can control downtown Damascus,” and other strategically important areas.

Holliday says the Syrian government has adopted a strategy of containment—giving up ground to rebel strongholds in the suburbs, then targeting them with artillery and airstrikes, while working to keep rebels away from key points of interest like the heavily secured city center.

The result has been a wave of destruction. In the days leading up to the attack on Aleppo University—in which twin blasts killed more than 80 and wounded more than 160 as students took exams—opposition activists relayed harrowing reports of women and children killed in government airstrikes in the Damascus suburbs amid one of the most intense attempts yet by the government to drive the rebels back. “I think the rebels have been forced to halt their push into Damascus for now, on account of the brutal bombardment of host suburbs by the regime,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a U.S.-based dissident and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.