Stalemate as Damascus water cutoff enters 4th week; no ground changes hands despite intense military campaign

AMMAN: The governor of Outer Damascus said that a “preliminary agreement” had been reached with rebels in Wadi Barada on Wednesday, though airstrikes and a ground invasion targeted the rebel-held region home to the majority of the Damascus water supply.

“A preliminary agreement was reached with the leaders of armed groups in Wadi Barada area by which the legal status of some militants would be resolved while the rest would leave the area and head to Idlib countryside,” Outer Damascus Governor Alaa Ibrhaim was quoted by state agency SANA as saying on Wednesday.

Other reports emerged on Wednesday that a ceasefire agreement between the rebels and the regime is now in place, which the Wadi Barada Media Center quickly denied.

“No such reconciliation has taken place,” the Wadi Barada Media Center posted on its Facebook page on Wednesday shortly after the SANA announcement. "The regime proposed an initiative, the rebels and residents are discussing it, but there has been no agreement yet.”

The airstrikes occurred all day, said a Wada Barada journalist.

“The bombing has been incredibly intense all day,” a spokesman with the Wadi Barada Media Office told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “There have been at least 14 airstrikes since the start of the day.”

Rebel forces repelled the multi-pronged advances by regime and Hezbollah fighters on Wednesday, as both sides have suffered heavy casualties. No ground has changed hands over the past three weeks.

Despite the ceasefire signed in Ankara on December 30, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted on Monday as saying that the Wadi Barada region is exempt from it.

“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 who were in Damascus.

Home to 10 rebel-held and three regime-controlled villages, the Ein al-Fijeh spring located in Wadi Barada supplied Damascus with 70 percent of its water before the destruction of the water-pumping station three weeks ago in unclear circumstances. The result has been wide-scale shortages for up to 5.5 million residents across Syria’s capital and adjacent suburbs.

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 the accusation, blaming government bombings for destroying Wadi Barada’s water-pumping station.

Among Syrians, Wadi Barada is best known as the home of Ein al-Fijeh, which provides drinking water to many of the capital’s neighborhoods, including Mezzeh and Malki, the wealthiest districts that count top regime officials and supporters among its population.

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.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.