‘Ghost towns’ fall outside ceasefire as water war intensifies outside Damascus

AMMAN: Rebel-held villages 15km northwest of Damascus are turning into “ghost towns” after pro-regime forces pummeled the area with dozens of airstrikes on Tuesday amidst a three-week campaign to wrest control of the capital’s largest freshwater source from opposition hands, local sources told Syria Direct.

Tuesday’s barrage of airstrikes, mortars and tank fire was “the single most violent” day since the December 22 start of the campaign on the rebel-held region, comprising several villages, opposition sources said.

The military escalation comes one day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying that that the region of Wadi Barada is exempt from a nation-wide ceasefire signed in Ankara on December 30.

“The terrorists occupy the main source of water of Damascus… and the role of the Syrian army is to liberate that area in order to prevent those terrorists from using that water in order to suffocate the capital,” Assad told members of the French media, assembled in Damascus.

Home to 10 rebel-held and three regime-controlled villages, Wadi Barada supplied Damascus with 70 percent of its water before the destruction of the area’s primary water-pumping station three weeks ago, leading to wide-scale shortages for up to 5.5 million residents across Syria’s capital and its neighboring suburbs.

 Airstrikes rock Wadi Barada on Sunday. Photo courtesy of the Wadi Barada Media Center.

Pro-regime sources say water stopped pumping to the capital on December 22 after rebels contaminated the area’s Ein al-Fijeh spring with diesel. Rebels deny this claim, blaming government bombings for destroying Wadi Barada’s water-pumping station.

Up to 50,000 residents—nearly half of Wadi Barada’s population—have fled their homes since the start of the Hezbollah-led ground offensive, which regime forces are supporting with heavy artillery fire and near-daily airstrikes, local activist told Syria Direct.

Villages across Wadi Barada are becoming “ghost towns,” a journalist from the Wadi Barada Media Center told Syria Direct on Tuesday, on condition of anonymity. Basima, one of the villages, “used to have 15,000 residents, and the town of Ein al-Fijeh used to have 30,000, but today they’re totally empty.”

With Hezbollah and regime forces blockading the 10 villages in the rebel-held pocket, displaced residents are left to relocate within the enclosed area, “packing the mosques and any other place they can go to escape,” Abu Mohammad al-Baradawi, a spokesman for the Wadi Barada Media Center, told Syria Direct on Monday. The regime campaign, he says, is an attempt “to empty Wadi Barada of its residents and to take control of the [Ein al-Fijeh] spring.”

Food supplies and medical support are increasingly in short supply inside Wadi Barada, al-Baradawi warned, and the vast majority of residents remain without any form of electricity or outside communication. Syria Direct spoke with al-Baradawi through a non-governmental satellite Internet channel typically reserved for rebel groups and media offices. 

Over the weekend, negotiations between rebel and regime negotiators failed to reach an agreement to repair the damaged pumping station, and airstrikes resumed once again on Sunday, continuing into Tuesday.

The pro-opposition media in Syria claims that more than 30 airstrikes, 40 surface-to-surface rockets and 60 mortars have hit Wadi Barada since Sunday, with residents and rebel fighters receiving a brief respite from the air assault only because of a dense fog and harsh weather conditions on Monday.

With ongoing airstrikes and attempts to breach the rebel-held pocket from at least three fronts, a commander with the rebel group Fustaqem Kama Amarat, Saqar Abu Qatiba, denounced the Ankara ceasefire on Sunday.

“We have not and we will not accept a ceasefire that has exceptions,” he tweeted. “The regime’s ongoing attempts to storm Wadi Barada show that this agreement has become buried under the rubble of Wadi Barada’s demolished homes by Assad’s missiles.”

Fustaqam commander Saqar Abu Qatiba's original tweet. 

Without access to clean drinking water from the Ein al-Fijah springs, Wadi Barada residents are turning to drinking from non-sterile sources. As a result, “diarrheal diseases and gastroenteritis are spreading among residents,” the local media center’s al-Baradawi told Syria Direct.

Downstream in Damascus, one doctor says that children in the capital are falling ill from contaminated water as a result of the three-week water shortage. “I’m seeing cases of children of all ages suffer from severe diarrhea as well as fever,” the doctor, who asked not to be named, told Syria Direct on Monday.

Both the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and the United Nation’s humanitarian coordinator, Jan Egeland, condemned the rebel-regime water row in a joint press conference on January 5 from Geneva.

Up to 5.5 million people “have had their water supplies cut or minimized…because of fighting or because of sabotage or because of both” in Wadi Barada, said Egeland.

“To sabotage and deny water is of course a war crime.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.