New Cold War.org, Jan 4, 2017
Few news reports in English are describing the tense situation in the Wadi Barada River valley northwest of Damascus, the capital city of Syria. The river and its tributaries supply some 70 per cent of the water for the city with a population of some three million people. The area around the river source is controlled by anti-government forces but is surrounded by the Syrian army. Until recently, the water supply was managed by mutual agreement. But just before Christmas, the water supply was cut by government water authorities after they said it had become poisoned by diesel fuel.
Anti-government forces said that air strikes had caused diesel fuel to be spilled into a river tributary. The government says fuel was deliberately dumped into the river. Enclosed are two news reports on the situation.
Western media is publishing frequent reports speculating that the ceasefire in Syria is failing. The reports convey a distinct undertone of hope that, indeed, the ceasefire fails. The reports also convey sympathy for the most extreme of the anti-government forces in Syria (ISIS, Al-Nusra Front) that refuse to be part of any ceasefire or political settlement for the country. A Reuters report published in The Guardian on Monday, January 2, for example, says, “Syrian rebel groups announced on Monday that they had decided to freeze any talks about their possible participation in Syrian peace negotiations being prepared by Moscow in Kazakhstan unless the Syrian government and its Iran-backed allies end what it said were violations of a ceasefire.” The report does not name the “rebel groups” in question nor provide any other background information of substance.
The Washington Post boldly reported on January 3 that the ceasefire is “crumbling”. It said, “A Syrian cease-fire backed by Russia and Turkey is crumbling five days after it began, with government forces pushing offensives around Damascus and rebels threatening to suspend participation in new peace talks.” Like the Reuters report, the Post does not name its reported “10 rebel factions” said to be suspending talks with the Syrian government. Associated Press reports similarly in a widely-published dispatch on January 3.
Syrian Army captures several sites in Wadi Barada
By Leith Fadel, Al-Masdar News, Jan 4, 2017
BEIRUT, LEBANON (11:35 A.M.) – The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) launched another powerful attack at the Barada Valley area of rural Damascus on Wednesday, targeting the jihadist rebel defenses at several sites around the village of Bassima. Led by the 4th Mechanized Division and Qalamoun Shield, the Syrian Arab Army stormed Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham’s (formerly Al-Nusra Front) defenses this morning after a successful assault around Bassima yesterday.
According to local reports from journalists at the front-lines, the Syrian Arab Army seized the Bassima Orphanage (now a jihadist base in the town), Al-Maytem area, and several farms that border the village’s northern flank.
The Syrian Arab Army’s High Command has once again issued an ultimatum to the jihadist rebels in Wadi Barada: either surrender the town in exchange for safe passage to Idlib or prepare to be attacked.
Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham has repeatedly refused to surrender this area and restore water to the estimated 5 million people living in the Greater Damascus area; this has forced the Syrian Army to restart military operation at Wadi Barada.
Damascus goes thirsty as government attacks rebel-held river
By Phillip Issa, Associated Press, Jan 3, 2017[The following news report is provided for the information of readers. New Cold War.org does not share the interpretation of events in the report.]
BEIRUT — Residents of Damascus are scrambling for clean water after the government attacked rebels holding the city’s main source in a nearby valley, producing an outage that has stretched on for nearly two weeks.
The cut-off is a major challenge to the government’s effort throughout the nearly six-year-old civil war to keep the capital as insulated as possible from the effects of the conflict tearing apart much of the country.
The battle for resources has always been an undercurrent to the war. The government, in particular, has advertised its efforts to keep electricity and water flowing to areas under its control, while it blocks the UN and other relief agencies from supplying opposition zones. But rarely has that struggle been so starkly felt inside the capital.
“I have stopped cleaning the house, washing dishes or clothes. We no longer take showers,” said Mona Maqssoud, a 50-year-old resident of Damascus. She said residents have relied on water tankers that come by occasionally and give 20 liters (5 gallons) of water to each house, but that hasn’t been enough.
“We begged the drivers (to return) to our neighborhood, but they refused.”
The opposition has long controlled Wadi Barada, the valley northwest of Damascus through which the river of the same name flows to the capital. The government and the opposition had previously had an understanding to keep water services running. But that modus vivendi ended when forces of President Bashar Assad and his allies, the Lebanon Hezbollah guerrilla force, attacked the valley, home to some 100,000 people.
The cut-off, since Dec. 22, is the longest Damascus has seen, say residents, who are accustomed to intermittent outages.
The Barada River and its source, the Ain al-Fijeh spring, supply 70 per cent of the water for Damascus and its environs. An activist-run media collective in the Barada Valley said government and Russian aircraft had bombed the Ain el-Fijeh water processing facility, puncturing its fuel depots and contaminating the water stream. The collective said the plant’s electrical control systems had been destroyed as well. Images showed the roof of the facility collapsed into its main water basin. An activist with the group, Abu Mohammed al-Bardawi, said it would take at least two months to get the facilities working again.
Damascus officials said they shut off the water after opposition forces poured gasoline into the river. The government denied attacking the water processing facility, saying it would not set out to harm its own population. Still, it would not be the first time it strikes its own facilities: government strikes hit pumping stations in the northern city of Aleppo in April, September, and November.
Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power, has been spared from the widespread destruction in other parts of the country, though rebels on the outskirts occasionally fire mortar rounds into the city. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have flocked to the capital seeking its relative security, swelling its population to 4 million from 2 million, according to the UN.
For its residents, the water cuts are a grueling reminder of the war beyond.
“If this goes on, I will rent a room at a hotel just to take a shower,” said a 60-year-old woman carrying a pair of buckets back to her apartment on the sixth-floor of a walk-up building. Like many others in the capital, she was filling her basins from distribution points at a parks and mosques. The local press is reporting soaring prices for unregulated private water.
Residents are making adjustments to cope. Some are now flushing their toilets with bottled water. Others are dining on disposable tableware as an alternative to doing the dishes.
Ground wells around Damascus, even at maximum capacity, can only cover about a third of the minimum water demand of around 600,000 cubic meters a day, according to UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette Touma. The agency has rehabilitated some 200 wells around the capital since 2011, partially insuring the government against the effects of its own Barada Valley campaign. This year, UNICEF funded $50 million in water projects in Syria.
The Barada Valley is surrounded by all sides by the Syrian army and Hezbollah forces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict. Pro-government forces have kept up their assault with airstrikes, artillery and infantry pushes, despite a Russia and Turkey-brokered cease-fire that went into effect Friday. The government and the Observatory say fighters loyal to al-Qaida are present in the valley, and the militants are not included in the cease-fire. Local residents say there are no al-Qaida fighters in the valley.
“Most of the food depots have now been struck and burned,” said al-Bardawi. “They are striking the schools we are using for shelters.”
In early December, pro-government media reported efforts by officials to reach a so-called “reconciliation agreement” with the towns and villages of Barada Valley, under which thousands of dissidents, military defectors and draft-dodgers would leave in exchange for the valley submitting to government control.
The opposition and the U.N. have likened these sorts of agreements to forced displacement. Such deals were reached in other areas around the capital under the pressure of years of government bombardment and siege.
Barada opposition fighters and councils have held out against any settlement. Activists say they believe that prompted the renewed government assault.
Opposition forces have retaliated by choking a natural gas pipeline to Damascus to pressure the government to stop its offensive, compounding the woes of the resource starved capital. A group of rebels calling themselves the Coalition for the Joint Defense of Syria filmed themselves cutting the gas to the capital at an isolated station outside the capital Thursday.
Four million in Damascus without mains water after springs targeted: UN, news compilation on New Cold War.org, Dec 29, 2016
Agreement in Wadi Barada reached amid hopes of ending water crisis, by Zen Adra, Al-Masdar News, Jan 6, 2017