Did al-Qaeda orchestrate a mass chemical attack on Damascus’ water supply? Did the Syrian government bomb its own water station? The final battle to oust control of a key water facility from insurgents is now underway and the fog of war is thick as civilians attempt to ration this most basic element of survival.

Over four million people in the greater Damascus area spent their New Year without water access and a local resident tells SOFREP, “people are genuinely panicking.” On 22 December the supply from Ain al- Fijah spring was cut off. This crucial single source water lifeline for the region is located about 20 kilometers northwest of Damascus in the Barada River valley (Wadi Barada). The government claims that rebel militants, who have occupied Wadi Barada since 2012, poisoned the water supply at its source by dumping mass quantities of diesel fuel into the spring.

Weaponizing water 

But opposition media has charged the Assad government with deliberately attacking its own water facility at al-Fijah in an air strike, while the Damascus City Water Supply and Sewage Authority continues to point to “terrorist attacks on all water resources feeding into Damascus and its surroundings.” On 29 December the United Nations issued a statement, indicating a “deliberate targeting resulting in the damaged infrastructure.” The UN did not assign blame, and called on both sides to safeguard essential services.

While international reports initially highlighted the diesel poisoning, photos have emerged online which purport to show a badly damaged exterior to the main Wadi Barada facility (see below). Indeed, as of 2 January, air strikes continue to pound the area.

But it is hard to imagine what the government would gain in deliberately attacking its own water source, which it has negotiated for years to protect, even if functioning under rebel control. A key feature of regime propaganda has been to sell itself on a track record of keeping the lights on and the water running. But the government also has a history of cutting utilities to rebel-held towns in order to compel local populations into submission. In this case, it is likely that rebels saw opportunity to reverse the tactic in a last-ditch effort to use what strategic battlefield leverage they still possess.

SOFREP spoke to an international NGO representative who is now on the ground in Wadi Barada. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the representative blamed anti-government fighters for poisoning the water supply, adding that, “more important is the scandal that insurgents hold hostage the water supply for a capital city and up to five million people.” The source also confirmed that a government strike did hit one of the main facilities: “an errant government strike damaged the exterior of one of the (3) facilities but it did not affect the water supply, just the concrete outside.”

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Nusra’s history of water terrorism

In the summer of 2014, al-Nusra cut water to all of Aleppo for three weeks, prompting even the usually pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights to condemn such rebel war crimes. Both Nusra and ISIS terrorists have been accused of bombing Aleppo water pipelines coming from the Euphrates, increasing the misery of millions in Northern Syria.

Damascus is currently able to tap some limited reserve supplies – residents in the city center report water comes on briefly once every four days. Other more fortunate parts of the city might see residential access to reserves for an hour or two a day. Mobile water distribution centers have been set up at various places in Damascus and are announced via daily flyers and state media.

Water has been weaponized since nearly the start of the conflict, and Wadi Barada has been ground zero for these “water wars” since 2012. In early 2012, the Syrian government withdrew its forces from the area as the Free Syrian Army seized control of various Damascus suburbs. This meant that the FSA and its ally al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in Syria, which now calls itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) had total control over Damascus’ most important water supply station.

The most notable shutdowns came in November 2014, when the militants cut supplies to Damascus for three days, and in August 2015. The militants would shut down pumping stations or at other times threaten the permanent cut off of water supplies to the capital anytime the army approached. At times, the insurgents were successful in leveraging this against the regime. In 2015 the government released a handful of prisoners and agreed to a ceasefire after the army and Hezbollah halted their temporary advances in the area. Severe water shortages in Damascus had extended to two weeks prior to the uneasy truce.

Catch-22

Both sides have been in a catch-22 situation: opposition fighters have survived annihilation by maintaining a tenuous control over the most valuable natural resource supplying the capital, while the government feared a full assault might knock out its own water infrastructure at a time when all of its resources and logistical abilities were already stretched thin across the country. In early 2016, one Damascus water engineer who fled the country in fear of the regime told Middle East journalist Alisa Reznick, “The rebels say they’ve laced the spring with TNT and explosives, and that if the army enters again they will explode the spring and let everybody lose.” State media has in the past reported frequent rebel threats to poison the water with arsenic or other hazards.

Due to this bizarre scenario of mutually assured destruction, a status quo has been in effect for years, which includes government engineers operating Wadi Barada’s water systems under the eye of rebel commanders. These engineers communicate frequently with the state water authority.

As the endgame nears, civilians thirst

The standoff in Wadi Barada has now entered an endgame. The Syrian Army has declared its intent to fully retake the valley after surrounding insurgent holdouts for weeks, which likely prompted the diesel poisoning. The army made significant gains as a Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire came into effect on Friday, December 30 (while endorsed by the UN, the US was excluded from these latest ceasefire negotiations).

The Syrian government says Nusra (or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) is excluded from the agreement. As Nusra controls Wadi Barada and al-Fijah spring, the regime has declared the area fair game. On 1 January the Syrian Army’s 4th Mechanized Division reportedly broke through Nusra’s front lines in Ain al-Fijah and is poised to retake the whole area. But the rapid restoration of water services is unlikely and uncertain, however, as one of the three water processing facilities was damaged.

In the meantime, government and opposition media continue to trade blame over the lack of water. Both have now committed to an “all or nothing” battle in Wadi Barada. In this scenario, the Syrian government knows it will win, but loyalist Damascus is already paying a price. Families with means are fleeing to other government areas in the countryside and coastal cities like Tartus, in order to wait out the water war. Now approaching two weeks without water, no one can predict just how desperate the situation will get.

Featured image courtesy of Twitter/Jamil Kazlu