AMMAN: Pro-Assad and rebel forces in Wadi Barada exchanged heavy fire on Sunday for the third consecutive day following a bilateral ceasefire agreement, as local opposition sources tell Syria Direct that the collapsed deal was a “deliberate distraction” in the regime’s campaign to “seize more territory by military force.”
Despite Thursday’s ceasefire, regime forces and allied Hezbollah fighters—backed by an assault of mortars, machine gun fire and barrel bombs—attempted to capture the Ein al-Fijeh water pumping station on Sunday, which supplied Damascus with 70 percent of its water before the destruction of the area’s primary water-pumping station last month.
Since Thursday, “things haven’t calmed down one bit,” Muath al-Qalamouni, a journalist with the STEP News Agency inside Wadi Barada, told Syria Direct on Sunday. “No part of that agreement was for real…and it’s clear that they’re trying to seize Ein al-Fijeh by military force.”
Airstrikes first ensued as soon as two hours after the signing of Thursday’s ceasefire agreement and escalated throughout the weekend. Al-Qalamouni says at least 10 people have been killed since Thursday, including women and children.
Pro-opposition sources told Syria Direct that Hezbollah fighters spoiled the Thursday agreement.
“Hezbollah mans the Wadi Barada checkpoints, and they’re the ones that violated the ceasefire,” Omar a-Shimali, a spokesman with the Wadi Barada Media Center, told Syria Direct on Sunday. “This just goes to show that the agreement was never going to happen because the regime, like always, is unable to keep their allied militias in line.”
While SANA, Syria’s official state news agency, has not covered the situation in Wadi Barada since the initial reports of a “reconciliation agreement,” pro-regime media outlets reported airstrikes and heavy machine gun fire in the area, targeting “the Jabhat a-Nusra terrorist group” since Thursday.
Prior to the ceasefire’s collapse, the deal provided measures to repair the Ein al-Fijeh water-pumping station, damaged in the battle, and outlined steps for the amnesty or evacuation of Wadi Barada’s opposition fighters, Syria Direct reported. It is unclear whether or not the regime will restore full civil and military control over the area—as in previous reconciliation agreements—and there is no mention of the surrender of rebel weaponry.
The agreement was the second since the start of the nearly four-week battle for Damascus’s primary water source. An earlier deal collapsed last weekend hours after it was reached when the lead mediator, Ahmed al-Ghadban, was assassinated, Syria Direct reported.
Coinciding with the signing of the Thursday peace agreement, regime forces and allied Hezbollah fighters captured their third rebel village inside Wadi Barada since the start of the month-long campaign.
The regime—which now controls six out of 13 villages inside Wadi Barada—encircled the northern town of Ifra on Thursday, leading to the local rebels’ withdrawal to Ein al-Fijeh and Deir Miqrin, where the regime is focusing its ground offensive.
Wadi Barada, December 26, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Wadi Barada Media Center.
In taking control over Ifra, the regime made their deepest advances into Wadi Barada since relinquishing control of the pocket in 2012, easily advancing through the mountainous terrain to within 2km of the Ein al-Fijeh spring from the north.
Sunday’s clashes come two weeks after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying 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.
Since Thursday, “up to 100 residents—including civilians, former regime defectors and army draft dodgers”—have exited Wadi Barada, signing amnesty agreements with the regime, al-Qalamouni of the STEP News Agency, told Syria Direct on Sunday. Syrian state media reported that figure to be as high as “some 1,000 people” as of Friday.
On Friday, the Syrian National Coalition Of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, also known as the Etilaf, criticized the recently signed agreement as another attempt by regime forces and Iranian-backed militias “to bring about a demographic change in Damascus and [its] countryside through the mass forced displacement of whole communities from the rebel-held areas.”
Repair teams have still not been able to enter the Ein al-Fijeh water pumping station, as Damascus marks its 32nd day of a dire water shortage.
As a result of the nearly month-long fighting in Wadi Barada, up to 5.5 million residents across Syria’s capital and adjacent suburbs are grappling with wide-scale water shortages.
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.
Food supplies and medical support are increasingly in short supply inside Wadi Barada, and the vast majority of residents remain without any form of electricity or outside communication.
With encirclement, nothing and no one enters or leaves. Therefore, trapped residents are already facing dire food shortages, says Abu Mohammad al-Baradawi, spokesman for the Wadi Barada Media Center. Doctors are out of medicine, and amputations are now the “go-to option” in the case of serious injury. Baby formula, flour, clean drinking water are now all either in short supply or are entirely gone, he told Syria Direct earlier this month. “There is no escape.”
Among Syrians, Wadi Barada was 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.