AMMAN: Thousands of Syrian opposition fighters and their families are leaving Wadi Barada on Sunday, boarding buses en route to northern Idlib province as part of a deal with the regime as Damascus claims victory in the five-week water war, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.
Up to 2,100 Wadi Barada residents—approximately 400 rebel fighters, 70 critically injured patients and more than 1,500 accompanying family members—began boarding evacuation buses around 1pm local time as part of a reconciliation agreement signed with the regime on Friday.
The deal brings an end to the more than month-long armed struggle for the Ein al-Fijeh water-pumping station, which supplied Damascus with 70 percent of its water before its destruction in December.
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.
Whatever the cause, some 5.5 million residents across Syria’s capital and adjacent suburbs have grappled with water shortages for more than one month.
During the regime’s military campaign to capture Ein al-Fijeh, more than “200 people have been killed,” 400 have been injured and 45,000 people have lost their homes, a group of Wadi Barada civil society organizations stated in a “distress call” posted on Facebook last week.
Under the terms of the agreement, all Wadi Barada rebels who refuse to sign onto an amnesty deal with the regime must depart the opposition-held pocket on Sunday with their families under the supervision of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC).
In exchange, the Assad regime regains control of the Ein al-Fijeh water-pumping station and guarantees an end to all military operations inside the pocket.
Two previous ceasefire deals were reached earlier this month, but both collapsed within hours after they were signed, Syria Direct reported at the time.
What sets Friday’s agreement apart from the earlier deals, one opposition fighter told Syria Direct on Sunday, are two new provisions: Departing rebels may take their light weaponry with them, and Wadi Barada residents who fled their homes in the towns of Baseema and Ein al-Fijeh during the latest fighting may return after the evacuation ends and the regime takes over.
At time of publication on Sunday evening, evacuations are continuing as the ceasefire holds without incident. It is the longest pause in hostilities since the start of the military campaign in December.
“I’m pained by my decision to leave,” Abu Uday, a rebel fighter, told Syria Direct from one of the evacuation buses with his family on Sunday. “This is the feeling of losing your land, the place where you were born and have lived your whole life…but I know that staying would have meant forced recruitment into one of the national defense militias.”
The Assad regime, meanwhile, championed the deal. The Syrian Arab Army and its allied militias “accomplished their mission of restoring security and stability to the towns and villages of Wadi Barada,” Syrian state media outlet, SANA, quoted the General Command of the Army and the Armed Forces as stating on Sunday.
It is not immediately clear how many opposition fighters have accepted the regime’s amnesty so far. Pro-regime media claim the figures to range between 1,200 and 2,600 fighters. Pro-opposition sources similarly acknowledged that some rebels have decided to lay down their arms, but said that precise figures would not be clear until the completion of the evacuation, since “the door is still open.”
Inside Ein al-Fijeh, Syrian state television broadcasted images of 20 regime soldiers raising the Syrian national flag over the water-pumping station on Saturday after opposition forces evacuated the town. Repair teams entered the station for the first time in more than a month on Sunday to conduct initial assessments on the scale of destruction.
SANA quoted Damascus Countryside Governor Alaa Ibrahim on Sunday as saying that “the damage caused to the facility is huge and requires some time for finishing” the repair work before water pumping will resume to Damascus.
‘Nobody else will have to die’
Across Wadi Barada, civilian reactions range “from elation to devastation,” Safaa, a local nurse and mother of five children, told Syria Direct on Saturday.
“On one hand, we’re terribly sad to see the rebels leaving and the regime coming in, but we are so relieved that the bombing and the encirclement will finally come to an end and that nobody else will have to die,” she added.
During the military campaign, Syrian Arab Army forces and allied Hezbollah fighters targeted journalists, medical workers, Civil Defense first responders and civilian infrastructure inside Wadi Barada, Syria Direct reported.
Food, medicine and other basic supplies have not entered the seven rebel-held towns in Wadi Barada for over a month. Since the destruction of the water-pumping station in December, residents inside the pocket remained largely without access to clean drinking water, electricity and communication with the outside world.
Evacuation of rebel fighters from Ein al-Fijeh on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Muath al-Qalamouni.
The regime’s ground and air offensive—which relied heavily on airstrikes, barrel bombs, tank shells, mortar fire and snipers—was unprecedented for Wadi Barada, which had seen an uneasy peace since rebels seized control in 2012, Safaa, the Wadi Barada nurse, told Syria Direct on Sunday.
“Since the beginning of the revolution, this has been an area at peace…we were never prepared for such a blockade,” she added. “This agreement is a way to save the lives of children, of the elderly inside Wadi Barada; it’s not a surrender and it’s not a betrayal of those martyrs who gave their lives for this land.”
For Um Sahib, an elementary school teacher and resident of regime-held Damascus, the deal means hope that water will return soon.
“I was eagerly awaiting such an agreement, so that water would finally come back to Damascus,” she told Syria Direct on Sunday. “We’re in desperate need of water, and [Wadi Barada] is in need of calm and security, and so this agreement was in the interests of both sides.”