How did a natural water spring end up at the centre of the Syrian war?

Fighting in the Barada Valley might jeopardise the peace process, Syrian rebels say.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

The Barada River runs through Damascus and serves as the main water supply for millions of Syrians around the capital.

Updated Jan 13, 2017

Prospects for Syrian peace are on thin ice as continued fighting in Wadi Barada could potentially send the conditions of millions of people – on both the rebel and regime sides – from bad to catastrophic.

“Under no circumstances will the opposition agree on attending Astana conference if the ceasefire agreement continues to be violated in Wadi Barada,” Hadi al Bahra, spokesperson for the opposition High Negotiations Committee, told TRT World.

After airstrikes damaged water pumping facilities in Ain al Fijah, a rural village to the north of Damascus whose spring serves as the primary water source to the capital, the UN reported water shortages affecting upwards of four million people.

Without access to the water the spring provides, the situation could rapidly deteriorate. Drought, crop failure and the spread of infectious diseases could follow.

The fighting centres around a tiny valley barely ten kilometres wide, named Wadi Barada.

Why is Wadi Barada’s water so important?

Wadi Barada, or the Barada Valley, is a river valley that runs between two mountains. It was known as a calm vacation getaway just outside the city before war broke out. In 2012, it was claimed by rebels early on in the insurgency against Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad.

The rebel enclave around Wadi Barada has been surrounded and besieged by the regime and Hezbollah militias since late 2014.

​Though populated only by a sparse handful of villages, rebels who control the besieged enclave held strategic leverage: the Ain al Fijah spring – the natural water source for 80 percent of the capital region.

If the regime were to move in, rebels could threaten to cut off the water supply to more than four million people.

A stalemate prevailed between the warring parties, who begrudgingly agreed that damaging the water supply was off-limits. Though on opposite sides of the battlefield, both the rebels and the regime need water to survive.

They even cooperated at times, calling a truce to allow civilian engineers from Damascus to enter rebel territory to fix a burst pipe last July.

When did trouble start in the valley? 

The stasis was shattered when barrel bombs dropped by Syrian Air Force helicopters then damaged machinery that pumps water out of the spring in Ain al Fijah on December 22.

Within days, reports of scattered water shortages in Damascus began to appear, and within a week, the UN reacted with alarm that over four million residents were left without access to clean water.

Struggles over natural resources continue to be a driving factor in the Syrian war, and research suggests that droughts caused by climate change may have contributed to economic strain on the country, accelerating the advent of the Arab uprising. (Illustrations by Symbolia Magazine)

How are civilians affected by the valley's conflict ?

Already exhausted by the war, the lack of water exacerbates the risk of death and disease in besieged areas.

Shelling from the hilltops has continued to fall unabated onto the valley villages below, even since the ceasefire agreement was signed, Abu Mohammed Bardawi, media director at the local council in Ain al Fijah, told TRT World.

“The health services and the humanitarian situation is so bad up to today in the villages inside the valley. For twenty days the electricity, water, and internet connections are as slow as a dripping sink,” he said. “People are sleeping in the streets and the temperature is minus 10 degrees.”

A study published by Stanford University found that farming and irrigation throughout Syria has been substantially damaged by the war, and the long-term effects to the country’s “fertile crescent” could last generations.

Who’s to blame for the water shortages?

In letters to the UN Secretary General, the regime accused the rebel group Jaish Fatah ash-Sham of both blowing up the machinery that pumps water from the spring and poisoning the water supply.

Those claims were investigated by Takkad, a Syrian fact-checking institution, and by Bellingcat, an open-source intelligence foundation based in the UK.

The Bellingcat study matched video, shot by locals in Wadi Barada, of regime helicopters dropping barrel bombs, with satellite imagery taken three days later showing the damaged pumping facility, casting doubt on the regime’s accusations that rebels had sabotaged it.

Takkad pointed to statements by local councils in the area that Jaish Fatah ash-Sham are not active in Wadi Barada and Ain al Fijah.

If fighting continues, will the peace process collapse?

A nationwide ceasefire promising to establish a calm that Syrians so desperately need is in danger of collapse. In violation of the truce agreement brokered at the end of December, regime forces backed by Hezbollah militias have continued their assault on a besieged rebel enclave on the rural outskirts of Damascus – prompting threats from the opposition to abandon multilateral peace talks set to take place later this month in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.

Turkey, who agreed to act as guarantor ensuring opposition factions would abide by the truce, has called on Russia to pressure forces loyal to Assad to do the same.

"After the ceasefire, we see violations," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. "If we do not stop the increasing violations, the Astana process could fail."

Rebel groups have repeatedly warned that they would resume the offensive if regime forces refused to abide by the latest agreement, which prohibits attempts to seize territory not held prior to the ceasefire.

In a statement on January 3, The Free Syrian Army said it was “freezing all discussion regarding the Astana negotiations” until the ceasefire was honoured.

The Free Syrian Army had signed on to the latest ceasefire only after expressing reservations about continued aerial bombardment. But calls to honour the ceasefire in the Barada Valley went unheard.

The regime has little to lose from the opposition pulling out of the Astana talks. Past ceasefires have come and gone, and with Russia backing it at the UN Security Council, there is hardly any mechanism to bring repercussions for breaking the ceasefire. Attacks continued on Wednesday in several Syrian cities, casting doubt on a road to peace that requires everyone to put down their guns long enough to sit down at the table and negotiate.

Author: Shawn Carrie