Damascus water wars expose Assadist rifts, threaten humanitarian disaster
International organisations including the UN and the International Red Cross continue to have no access to a contested valley located close to Damascus as millions in the Syrian capital face restricted access to mains water.
Around 70 percent of Damascus' water supply comes from Wadi Barada where clashes are ongoing between pro-regime troops and opposition fighters among mounting humanitarian concerns for an estimated 45,000 civilians besieged in the area.
The Ain al-Fija source in Wadi Barada has been cut since 22 December amid mutual accusations between pro-regime and rebel groups over who is responsible.
Rebel groups situated in Wadi Barada have previously cut water supplies on a number of occasions as a bargaining chip in order to dissuade the Syrian regime from launching full-scale assaults on the area, which has been in rebel hands since 2012.
However, they say that the Syrian regime has falsely claimed rebels have polluted the water supply with diesel as a pretext to invade the valley despite the existence of a nationwide ceasefire in Syria brokered by Russia and Turkey in late December.
The Syrian regime has also claimed that the nationwide ceasefire is not applicable to Wadi Barada due to the presence of the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in the area. However, local councils in Wadi Barada claim that the group, formerly known as the Nusra Front, has not had a presence in the area since 2015.
Videos uploaded to the internet by opposition activists claim to show extensive damage to water infrastructures in Wadi Barada they say has been caused by regime bombardment.
Speaking on Thursday Jan Egeland, head of a UN-backed humanitarian taskforce for Syria, said that 5.5 million people in Damascus had been affected by the water cuts, adding that such "dramatic consequences" meant it was an imperative that the UN gained access in order to make vital repairs.
But both the UN and the International Red Cross say that gaining access to Wadi Barada is currently not possible due to ongoing fighting in the area.
"We are working to get access and have contact with local councils but because of the ongoing fighting we cannot enter," said Ingy Sedky, a spokesperson for the International Red Cross speaking to The New Arab.
Last week a UN source in Damascus revealed to The New Arab that authorities in Damascus had established an emergency plan to produce around 30 percent of residents' water needs.
However, the UN source said that as a result of the crisis people are increasingly resorting to buying water privately for household usage, leading prices to skyrocket to more than double their usual cost, adding that the UN had been involved in rehabilitating a number of wells in and around Damascus that now served as "the sole source of water" for the entire city. Risks of water-born diseases are also on the rise.
But concerns are also increasing for civilians trapped in Wadi Barada.
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In addition to Syrian Arab Army troops, the Lebanese Shia paramilitary group Hezbollah is taking part in current regime advances on Wadi Barada.
The strategically important valley is located between Damascus and the group's strongholds in the Bekaa valley across the Lebanese border. Opposition figures claim that Hezbollah is reluctant to leave the area, under Iranian direction, despite the existence of a nationwide ceasefire for Syria which came into place on 29 December.
"Hezbollah, backed by Iran, is interested in asserting control in these areas by the Lebanese border. We have seen this in places like Yabroud, Qalamoun, Qusair. They want to control this area," said Monzer Akbik, a senior member of Tayar al-Ghad, a moderate opposition faction involved in fighting against the Islamic State group alongside Kurdish forces in eastern Syria, in comment to The New Arab.
Ahmad Ramadan, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council opposition political body, pointed to reports earlier this week that Russian generals attempting to enter Wadi Barada to assess the situation in the valley, had been denied access by Hezbollah operatives in the area as evidence of such dynamics.
This week Turkey has also called on Iran to exert pressure on Hezbollah to halt its operations in Wadi Barada in remarks rebuked by Tehran as "unconstructive".
"There is some disagreement between these pro-regime groups. The two main forces on the ground in Wadi Barada are the Republican Guard under Maher al-Assad (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brother) and Hezbollah," said Ramadan, who described incursions by pro-regime forces in the area as a clear violation of the ceasefire.
"Without doubt this is a clear violation. We are in communication with local councils on the ground there. Civilians are being subjected to bombardment and they are surrounded, they have nowhere to go."
Sedky, of the IRC, said that in the past week some civilians had managed to flee Wadi Barada.
However, neither the IRC nor the UN, due in part to restricted access, has official statistics on displacement from the area with estimates ranging from 900 into the thousands.
Akbik voiced concern for civilians besieged in the area, pointing out that the Syrian Civil Defence, one of whose members was reportedly killed in regime bombardment in the area this week, had reported running out of diesel fuel to power its emergency response vehicles.
"People are trapped, they have nowhere to go," said Akbik. "I think the attack will continue. It is a mountainous region and the regime has had trouble in the past displacing opposition groups from this area but I don't know how long they (the opposition) can resist with their current stocks of ammunition and supplies."
Since water to Damascus from Wadi Barada was cut the UN has consistently described the sabotaging of water infrastructures as tantamount to war crimes.
However, the UN has not commented on who is responsible for damaging water infratructures in Wadi Barada.
Combatant forces in Syria have routinely been accused of using water as a weapon, with the Syrian regime notably criticised for bombing campaigns targeting water infrastructures in the formerly rebel-held districts of east Aleppo last year.
Meanwhile, in Wadi Barada itself, monitors such as the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have recorded a mounting civilian death toll in the valley in a campaign that has involved airstrikes, shelling, and ground advances by pro-regime troops.
"We are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of civilians trapped in the area," said Sedky. "We are waiting for access. We are ready. But because of the conditions we cannot enter."