After Battle for Wadi Barada, the Damascus Water War Isn’t Over

Muhammad Fares, a Syrian journalist from Wadi Barada, discusses the long history of water as a weapon in the Damascus suburbs and the river valley that contains the larger story of the Syrian conflict.

Written by Annia Ciezadlo Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
Civilians living in the villages of the rebel-held Wadi Barada area of rural Damascus are waiting to have their documents checked by government officials before being granted safe passage out of the area.AFP/SANA/handout

BEIRUT – On January 29, a small group of Syrian army soldiers entered the mountain town of Ain al-Fijeh, home to the Fijeh Spring, which supplies roughly two thirds of the water to Damascus. They stamped their feet in the cold, took selfies and glowered at the rebel fighters who had controlled the area until that point. One of the soldiers climbed up a metal tower and tied a small Syrian flag to a metal strut.

“They claim they achieved their victory,” one of the rebel fighters said bitterly on a videotape of the episode. “But they came in here thanks to an agreement with us.”

The flag marked the end of a bloody, month-long government offensive in Wadi Barada, a river valley that runs from the mountainous border with Lebanon all the way to the gates of Damascus. The valley is home to about 18 villages and towns; many of them have been held by various armed groups – including Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army – since 2012 or later. The government and its allied militias have been imposing a partial siege on the valley since late 2013.

This water pumping station in Ain al-Fijeh on the outskirts of the capital was damaged during the fighting in the Wadi Barada area after government forces recaptured the area from the rebels in January. (AFP/STRINGER)

In late December, the government claimed a rebel attack had polluted the Fijeh Spring. Rebel groups released a video of what they claimed were government bombs falling on the large structure that housed the spring. As water taps in Damascus ran dry for weeks, the government stepped up a bombing campaign across the rebel-held parts of the valley. In late January, the two sides agreed to a cease-fire – in essence, a rebel surrender – to evacuate fighters and their wounded from rebel-held parts of Wadi Barada to the largely opposition-controlled province of Idlib.

The agreement ended the immediate crisis. But this was not the first time that water had been used as a weapon in Wadi Barada, and it probably won’t be the last.

The Syrian government has always prioritized control of natural resources and geographically strategic areas. Wadi Barada is both. The mountains that bring water to Damascus are also a vital link with the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. For years, the mountainous valley has been a conduit for smuggling arms and illicit goods – a generator of revenue, and an important social safety valve during the 1980s and ’90s, but also a source of unease for the central government.

In the mid-1990s, former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s government cracked down on the smuggling networks that it had previously allowed to flourish. Throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the government consolidated control by expropriating land along the banks of the Barada river, diverting the water itself and building large-scale military infrastructure in the area. This served a dual purpose: as Damascus and its outskirts expanded, they needed more water. But the government’s crackdown also kept the people of Wadi Barada from posing a threat to its control over water resources that are essential to Damascus.

Map of Syria locating clashes between the regime and rebels in Wadi Barada and Islamic State group advances around Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

Map of Syria locating clashes between the regime and rebels in Wadi Barada and Islamic State group advances around Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

Wadi Barada encapsulates the larger story of the Syrian conflict: A once-thriving rural area is slowly drained of resources – natural, economic and social – until its people either migrate abroad, move to cities or give up. When the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government began in early 2011, many residents of Wadi Barada had seen their land and water – and often their livelihoods – taken away from them for decades.

Muhammad Fares is the alias of a Syrian journalist from Wadi Barada who is currently living in Europe. He has written extensively about the water wars in the valley, and is currently writing a book on the topic.

Syria Deeply: Let’s start by defining Wadi Barada. What do people in Syria mean when they say Wadi Barada?

Muhammad Fares: The word wadi means valley, and the valley locates on the edges of the Barada river. But the term Wadi Barada has been built over the past four years to mean an area that is full of smugglers, terrorists, drug dealers, weapon dealers, etc. … Whereas Wadi Barada in fact is a geographical area that locates between the main spring of Barada River and Rabweh, the western gate of Damascus, just by the Tishreen Palace.

Syria Deeply: So it ends right at the gate of Damascus? That answers my next question, which is why this area is strategically so important.

Fares: In my opinion, the conclusion of the ongoing war today is to give Assad and Iran – or the regime, even if Assad is not there – the eastern part of Syria. Wadi Barada is important because it links Damascus with Lebanon and the coastal area. More specifically, with Baalbek, and the whole Beqaa Valley, where Hezbollah fighters are.

Wadi Barada itself is a very militarized area. Here we have the Syrian Republican Guard; and here there is a research center, Jamraya Research Center, which was targeted by the Israelis back in 2013. Just a few kilometers from Wadi Barada, we have Ain as-Saheb, which was targeted by the Israelis in 2003, the first time Israel targeted Syria after 1973. Two or three months ago Israel targeted Sabura, less than 10 kilometers from Wadi Barada. There is a military airport here, called Mezzeh Airport. It was targeted by the Israelis last year as well.

The people of Wadi Barada owned all of those areas, but they were expropriated in the ’70s. We grew up knowing that on the tops of the mountains, it’s all army. It’s a residential area, but in the whole area of Wadi Barada, there is not a single civilian project. For example, it’s full of orchards – in 2010 it had around 200,000 trees of apple, apricot, different types of cherries, et cetera – yet there is no factory for making jam or making juice. There is no development.

Syria Deeply: There’s no civilian economic activity, in other words?

Fares: It depends. People in Ain al-Fijeh, for example, were relying more on tourism. They had around 70 small and medium restaurants in their areas. However, the areas from the valley to the Old Beirut Road are all expropriated, and all of that militarized.

Syria Deeply: Can you describe a little bit what you saw growing up, and how the area changed?

Fares: In my area, the only ones growing richer were the smugglers who were connected to the regime and the army. I used to sit down and listen to those tough guys going on their horses or their mules – in those days, they were smuggling mainly western-manufactured cigarettes. Also stationery. Other people used to smuggle food, like bananas, from Lebanon to Syria. Smugglers who were not coordinating with the regime, they would be arrested, or sometimes killed in the streets if they shot at the customs horses.

In 1992, I remember it was April, all of a sudden I heard people saying: “The army is coming, the army is coming.” One day we woke up and the army was spread throughout the whole area. They asked children things like, “Do you like this gun?” “Yes, I do.” “Do you think this gun is better than your father’s?” If the child says no, or yes, the father is in trouble.

It was a military campaign against areas with smuggling, including the area of Wadi Barada, Zabadani and Madaya, in which Basel al-Assad [Bashar’s older brother who died in 1994] was trying to present himself as the anti-corruption incoming president. Of course, many smugglers left the area before the anti-corruption campaign. But many people ended up in a really terrible financial situation after that military campaign.

Syria Deeply: Tell me how the river changed as you were growing up.

Fares: As a child, I didn’t feel any impending problem with water. But in 1992, 1993, when I started becoming a good swimmer, I started seeing the river change: In the morning it’s cut off, at noon it comes back, so we can swim. But also, sadly, it was full of sewage.

Syria Deeply: How did this affect people in the area? Were they using the water?

Fares: People used to grow wheat, barley, animal fodder up in the mountains. That was mostly rain-fed agriculture. After those lands were expropriated in the ’70s and ’80s, people were irrigating their remaining lands, on the edges of the Barada river. But in the early ’90s, suddenly the river disappeared, and we could see the whole mood was getting really terrible. It was really despair. The river was going dry, and we could not irrigate.The valley became really very very very sad. You could see it in the dried-up old trees, less butterflies, and less water. It became a really sad area.

Syria Deeply: What kind of trees? What were people growing?

Fares: Walnuts, poplar, willow. Apple, apricot. Cherries. Peaches, bananas. The walnut trees were very old – four, five, six hundred years old. People had businesses making boxes from the wood, from poplar – for sending peaches and apricots back to Damascus, to Aleppo, to Jordan, to the Gulf, to Beirut.

Then, in the ’90s, the men were in prison, the trees were dying and people were trying to find other sources of irrigation. People started buying water from tankers to irrigate, or sow their lands, or just to drink.

Syria Deeply: So they’re living on the banks of the river, but they have to buy water from companies to irrigate or drink?

Fares: Correct. That’s until 2006, 2007, when people just gave up on irrigation.

Syria Deeply: Did people try to do anything about the situation? Could they do anything?

Fares: In 2004, an old man from our area, called Abu Ali, he and others went to the prime minister’s office and asked for a meeting with him. Abu Ali stood there, carrying a bottle of muddy water, that he filled in our village, and started shouting: “If you can drink this, I will drink it myself!” They met the prime minister, and he promised them to do something. People didn’t recognize that the water of the river had disappeared forever.

That’s why I think that what is going on in Wadi Barada has been underestimated by the international community. The valley itself has been marginalized, even before 2011. And it doesn’t have, unfortunately, the international coverage that it needs. The press coverage is mostly “people in Damascus are not drinking.” And who cares that people in Wadi Barada are being killed?

Of course the people of Damascus, the real Damascenes, do understand that the people of Wadi Barada will never cut water, will never want them to be thirsty. Wadi Barada was giving Damascus electricity since 1905: The Damascus tramway was running on electricity being produced in the valley. But on the other hand, Wadi Barada itself didn’t get electricity until 1960.

The water to Damascus was coming from Wadi Barada, and the wood was coming from Wadi Barada, the fruits from Wadi Barada – and, of course, Eastern Ghouta – and yet this area was really oppressed. And after all of this, I guess that it will go on like this.

Syria Deeply: What’s the situation for civilians in Wadi Barada right now, since the cease-fire?

Fares: There is still no electricity (and consequently no water) nor telecommunications. There is a shortage of everything from bread to food to healthcare service. The Red Crescent accompanied the Wadi Barada fighters and their families to Idlib, but if they or the Red Cross or the U.N. have brought any aid to the area so far, I have not heard about it. Some of the villages were destroyed by regime bombardment, either totally or partially, and their residents fled to neighboring villages. Many of them are living in mosques. Around 1,500 civilians from Wadi Barada were displaced into the village of al-Rawdah during the assault. The little information I have is that they are suffering there. They have nothing and life is expensive there for them.

Syria Deeply: What can we learn from the story of Wadi Barada – not just the recent history, but the decades of marginalization?

Fares: I don’t think the ones in power in Syria, will ever recognize the injustices against the people of this area. I’m not saying this because I hate, or I love, or whatever: Even if Bashar al-Assad falls, even if the regime is gone, the new government will not understand the importance of this area in the coming years.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This story has been updated to correct the year when Wadi Barada began supplying electricity to Damascus.

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