Syria’s underground war: Tunnels in Damascus suburb mitigate blockade


February 4, 2016

Last week, regime forces flooded and sealed off drainage pipes leading into Jobar, just east of Abbasid Square in Damascus.

Jobar is the closest rebel-held area to Damascus and serves as a gateway into East Ghouta, the string of towns east of the capital that serves as the epicenter of opposition power in the region.

The regime sealed off the sewer system, which Jobar rebels used to carry out offensive operations in central Damascus, “to insulate the capital from rebel attacks,” Abu Wissam a-Dimashqi, an activist inside the town, tells Syria Direct’s Sama Mohammed.

Earlier in the week, a drop in air temperature and winter rainstorms caused the sewers to overflow into the streets, saturating the town with sewage, says a-Dimashqi.

Regime forces have blockaded Jobar and East Ghouta for more than two years, restricting the entry of food, fuel and medicine into the east Damascus suburb. Today, all but 42 families from the pre-war 300,00 strong population in Jobar have since fled to neighboring areas to escape the regime’s relentless bombardment of the rebel-held suburb.

What is left of Jobar is controlled by the rebel Unified Military Leadership, headed by Jaish al-Islam. They cling to the suburb because of its close proximity to Damascus, burrowing their way towards Damascus over the course of the war rather than face the well-positioned snipers above ground.

The regime has responded in kind, by building their own tunnels to protect themselves and attack the opposition, resulting in a cat-and-mouse game as regime soldiers and rebels try to outwit each with surprise attacks.

By flooding the tunnels, the regime thwarts rebels who relied on the sewer system to bypass the complete regime blockade of Jobar.

“The closure of the tunnels has constrained their movements.”

Q: Why did the regime seal up the sewers?

The regime is trying to insulate the capital Damascus from the threat of rebel attacks. That’s why they sealed the drains.

They welded them shut with iron and poured cement on top of them. They also pumped water into the drainage pipes last week, which flooded the streets. Recent drops in air pressure caused the water level to rise, making the situation worse. The streets were flooded with rainwater as well as the water from the sewers.

 The flooded streets of Jobar earlier this week. Photo courtesy of Abu Wissam a-Dimashqi.

Q: Why is the sewer system important for rebel fighters? How have they used them before?

They were used to conduct operations in the heart of the capital. The strategy of the rebel fighters in Jobar relies on tunnels, including the sewer tunnels. By using them, the rebels are trying to broaden the scope of their operations in central Damascus. The closure of the tunnels has constrained their movements, especially since Jobar is blockaded.

Q: What alternatives do the rebels have now that the sewer drains are sealed?

Rebel forces are working to dig additional new tunnels in order to conduct operations against regime forces and to smuggle weapons and food supplies into Jobar.

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