Capture of Syria’s Wadi Barada unlikely to ease residents’ decades-long suffering

The government's assault on Wadi Barada not only displaced residents but was the culmination of years of dispossession and exploitation of the area and its people, reports Muhammad Fares

Pro-Syrian regime fighters are seen at the Ain Al Fijeh water pumping station on January 29, 2017. AFP
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Abu Shadi stood in front of the Ras Al Aamood checkpoint with a blanket around his shoulders. He looked with tears in his eyes at the then rebel-held Barada valley from where he had just walked. Behind him was a blue ceramic wall with portraits of Bashar Al Assad and his father Hafez surrounded by the Syrian and Baath party flags. “We are back inside Assad’s barn now”, the 67-year-old retired army colonel thought.

Abu Shadi was forced to cross into government-held territory earlier this month after conditions became unbearable inside Wadi Barada, an area north-west of Damascus. The piece of territory had been held by rebels since 2012 before it was finally captured by regime forces on Sunday.

The loss of the wadi, the main water source for the Syrian capital, is a huge blow for the rebels after they were driven from their last stronghold in Aleppo last month. That victory allowed government troops and Hizbollah to turn their attention to the valley and, after more than a month of fighting, they took control of the main water pumping station at Ain Al Fijeh on Saturday.

The following day, the Syrian military said they had taken the whole of Wadi Barada.

“Units of our armed forces, together with ... allied forces have achieved their mission in returning security and stability” to the area, the military said.

Under a deal with the authorities, rebels can choose to stay in the area but hand over their weapons, or leave for the northern province of Idlib, the last major bastion of the armed opposition.

The fighting and the damage to the pumping station caused acute water shortages in Damascus. Meanwhile the suffering of the people inside the rebel-held area, once a picturesque tourist attraction drawing visitors from across Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf, deepened further.

Around 100,000 civilians in Wadi Barada – including tens of thousands who had arrived from other besieged communities – have been suffering from severe shortages of food, water and heating gas.

Escape from the valley

Earlier this month, Abu Shadi was trying to get his wife, their daughter-in-law and her newborn baby, out of the valley through the Ras Al Aamood army checkpoint, one of three that sealed off roads to the valley.

He needed a well-connected official to take money and let him and his family move out. The task was made more difficult by the lack of telephone and mobile networks in the valley. When the assault started, the Syrian army and Hizbollah targeted basic infrastructure, including telecommunications and health centres.

He finally managed to bribe an army officer at a checkpoint with 750,000 Syrian pounds (Dh13,000) with the help of a member of the local National Reconciliation Committee – one of many the regime set up across Syria to foster talks in a six-year conflict that has killed more than 500,000 people. Abu Shadi felt humiliated while giving money to the official whom, he said, is in fact a property commissioner who participated in stealing villagers’ lands.

“I have never bribed,” he said. “But I had to buy the life of my family. There is nothing left inside the valley while bombing and the shelling is non-stop.”

The family walked 6 kilometres to reach the Ras Al Aamood check point. It was painful for Abu Shadi to leave his home and the place where he held so many memories. Passing fields of cypress and pine trees on his left, he recalled the time his father collected rocks from the land there by donkey to build their house.

Abu Shadi said he had lost contact with his other family members in the recent weeks of fighting.

“I do not know anything about my brother and his family,” he said. “We heard that one of his daughters has lost her hand by a sniper and then she died. No medical care, no food, no fuel, no electricity, no water, no UN, no Red Cross.”

At the Ras Al Aamood checkpoint, government soldiers crowded around and heavy military vehicles were parked nearby. A tent had been erected by regime officials for the purposes of “national reconciliation” aimed at those fleeing the rebel-held areas. A few young men, women and children were waiting in the chilly weather to be let out.

Songs packed with nationalist rhetoric in praise of Mr Al Assad blasted from huge subwoofers – mixing with the sounds of shelling and bombing in the distance.

Pro-regime reporters interviewed those who had just arrived as they put their thumbprints on papers to prove they had legal status in government territory.

Most of the arrivals were wanted by the regime for military service and a few, the regime said, “carried weapons against the army but had no blood on their hands” – meaning it did not believe they had killed or kidnapped any pro-government fighters or any civilians.

The elderly, women and children were sent back to the valley unless they paid a bribe.

“We are here to come back to the homeland,” one young man said. “It is time to come back to the old days when we were one united people.”

Most of the women and children were too scared to talk.

“It is hell in the valley,” Abu Shadi’s wife said with a fragile voice. “People are starving. It is a tragedy. Children are sick. No electricity, no food, nothing.”

Assault on Wadi Barada

The assault on Wadi Barada began on December 23 after the government accused rebels of polluting the water spring with diesel fuel. They later said the rebels had tried to blow up the spring.

The opposition said the damage was done when regime forces conducted air strikes and shelled Ain Al Fijeh twice and targeted all ten of the rebel-held villages in the valley with barrel bombs last January.

Late last month and earlier this month, Qatar’s Al Jazeera news channel broadcast footage showing that the Ain Al Fijeh spring had been subjected to aerial bombardment. Meanwhile, analysis carried out by the citizen journalism site Bellingcat concluded “the most likely scenario is that the regime was responsible for the damage to the spring structure”.

The rebels called for a UN investigation into the bombing of the spring and called on the regime to send technicians to fix it as long as the government would honour the ceasefire and lift the siege.

On December 30, a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia came into effect across Syria that excluded extremist groups including ISIL and Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, the former Al Qaeda wing in Syria. Under that pretext, the regime and Hizbollah continued its brutal assault on the valley with barrels bombs loaded with chlorine and napalm, rockets, snipers and mortars from the tops of surrounding hills.

On January 1, around 1,200 civilians were allowed out of the valley where the regime said they were “evacuated” to a neighbouring village.

Two weeks later, the minister of national reconciliation, Ali Haidar, said there had been a “truce” with the “armed men” in Wadi Barada for the past three years to keep the water flowing to Damascus and protect the spring.

“We accepted to halt the military operations [in Wadi Barada for years] because we needed the army in other areas,” Mr Haidar added.

The regime and the rebels reached an agreement on January 13 when Mr Al Assad commissioned retired Major General Ahmad Al Ghadban – a tough negotiator and top representative of the valley – to administrate and supervise the maintenance of Ain Al Fijeh.

However, the next day Maj Gen Al Ghadban was assassinated at the Ras Al Aamood checkpoint, with the government blaming the “terrorists” for his killing. The opposition said the regime killed him because he was a tough negotiator who forced the government into a reconciliation that would not humiliate the valley’s rebels.

The regime forces increased their offensive in the area and on January 15 at least 12 civilians were killed and 20 injured in the village of Dayr Qanon.

In addition to its water supply, Wadi Barada is strategically important for the Syrian government and its ally forces. Its capture will now allow an easier and safer passage for Iranian supplies to pass to Hizbollah in Lebanon through the town of Zabadani.

Dispossession and exploitation

The displacement of the people of Wadi Barada now is the culmination of decades of dispossession and exploitation by the Assad regime.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many villagers from the valley lost hundreds of hectares of agricultural land as a result of large-scale government expropriation in the Damascus countryside.

The army and ministry of defence seized most of the lands under laws that allow private property to be taken for projects “of public benefit”.

During the late 1970s, Abu Shadi’s parents lost more than 25,000 square metres of land in different parts of Wadi Barada.

A few years ago, a court retroactively offered Abu Shadi’s family 800 Syrian pounds for every 1,000 square metres seized but he never received any payment. Today, land in the area sells at prices between 20,000 and 50,000 Syrian pounds per square metre depending on whether it is to be used for agriculture or property development.

Meanwhile, the increase in the population of Damascus, from 700,000 in 1950 to 7 million in 2011, put more pressure on the water source. To meet the increasing demand, the authorities drilled a series of boreholes around the wadi in the mid-1990s. The Barada River dried up soon after that, forcing farmers to abandon their land in the valley.

The drop in their water was one of the reasons the residents of Wadi Barada joined the protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 against Mr Al Assad.

But once the conflict started, both the opposition and the government depended on the source, so an unofficial truce in the area remained in place until the end of 2016.

With the capture of Wadi Barada it is unclear what the Syrian government has planned for the 100,000 civilians that remain there in desperate conditions.

“I do not know if I will ever be allowed to go back to my valley,” said Abu Shadi. “Or will we be like the Palestinians who only see their homeland on the map?”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae