The Barada River Valley (Wadi Barada) lies to the north-west of Damascus. Up until this week it had been controlled by a pocket of besieged rebel groups including the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Shaam (JFS).1.http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=582162.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/02/syria-army-launch-fresh-offensive-near-damascus-rebel-warning/ However, breaking developments indicate that the pocket has now entirely collapsed.3.http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/syrian-army-captures-wadi-barada-170129131830656.html
The Barada River, which originates in the southern Anti-Lebanon Mountains and winds its way to the Syrian capital, is surrounded by mountainous terrain. This river is the main water source for Damascus, making the valley strategically important. Control of the mountainous terrain around the river is also important, as urban areas in the valley are indefensible without securing the high ground.
Rebel groups took control of Wadi Barada in February of 2012, and have held it ever since. Government attempts to reclaim the valley in July 2016, were answered with a summary execution of 12 Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers.4.http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-nusra-idUSKCN1002MY?il=0 After a brief respite, the government renewed its offensive in the closing month of 2016.
On December 23rd, 2016, heavy fighting erupted in and around the valley. On the same day it was reported that the Barada River had been contaminated with diesel fuel, polluting and forcing the government to cut off Damascus’ drinking water. Initial reports stated that rebel groups operating in the valley had poured the fuel into the river.5.http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-water-idUSKBN14C20Q?il=0 Alternatively, rebel groups blamed the Syrian Air Force, claiming that its air strikes in Ain al-Fijeh damaged the water infrastructure.6.https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/01/04/wadi-barada-happened-damascuss-water/ The fog of war makes it difficult to accurately determine culpability. However, there is evidence supporting both sides’ claims.
In the past the rebels have used access to drinking water as a bargaining chip, even cutting off Damascus in July, 2015.7.http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/en/originals/2015/07/syria-zabadani-regime-advance-opposition-besieged.html Additionally, a video has emerged that allegedly shows a rebel group in the Baradi Water Tunnel threatening to blow it up should government troops attack the rebel pocket. However, this video was uploaded on December 25th, two days after the incident, making it difficult to ascertain its actual connection to the water contamination.8.https://twitter.com/IvanSidorenko1/status/813074765007192064
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), government forces bombed the valley on December 16th and 20th, lending credence to the rebels’ claims.9.http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=5712610.http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=57352 A video uploaded on December 23rd showed damaged buildings, supposedly water purification infrastructure, in Ain al-Fijeh.11.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G627ZEeDOIQ A third video, shown by Al-Jazeera but lacking a timestamp, portrays bombs landing in Ain al-Fijeh, possibly striking the water infrastructure.12.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtfXxRoCldc&feature=youtu.be&t=91 The investigative journalism network Bellingcat analysed the evidence and concluded that Syrian Air Force bombing was the likely cause of the contamination.13.https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2017/01/04/wadi-barada-happened-damascuss-water/
On January 8th, pro-government forces including Lebanese Hezbollah, captured the mountains to the north of the pocket.14.https://twitter.com/CivilWarMapPT/status/818171251797688320 It then became possible for pro-government forces to concentrate heavy firepower on the low ground and shield themselves from sizeable counter-attacks. Soon after, government forces penetrated the valley from the south-east and captured the small city of Basimah.15.https://twitter.com/CivilWarMap/status/819661806247575553?s=09
Reports in early January of a ceasefire, reconciliation and relocation had surfaced, though they were denied by rebel groups.16.https://twitter.com/MIG29_/status/819313677916602368 17.https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1809714755958978&id=1409638292633295 This failure to negotiate was followed by the January 14th assassination of the lead negotiator while he was visiting the rebel pocket. Pro-rebel sources accused Hezbollah while pro-government sources blamed the rebels.18.http://syriadirect.org/news/assassination-of-lead-negotiator-derails-damascus-water-talks-battles-resume/#.WHuuZNw5vPA.twitter19.https://twitter.com/MIG29_/status/820328612662484997 Alternatively, a member of Ahrar ash-Sham accused JFS of being the perpetrators of the assassination.20.https://twitter.com/ahrarsham7/status/820383820973228032 The fighting in Wadi Barada had brought peace talks in Astana to a halt, since rebel groups viewed the continued fighting as a government violation of the ceasefire agreement, and the assassination of the lead negotiator severely complicated matters.21.http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/syrian-peace-talks-170103055420977.html
It finally became possible for repair teams to enter Ain al-Fijeh on January 13th, however allegations surfaced that repair teams were attacked.22.http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=58943,23.https://twitter.com/sayed_ridha/status/819914097063931904 On January 28th, pro-government forces took control of Ain al-Fijeh and reportedly flew the government flag over the purification instillation.24.http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=5994025.http://www.euronews.com/2017/01/28/syrian-army-takes-over-water-spring-near-damascus-hezbollah-run-media-unit At the time of writing 26.February 2016, repairs have yet to be completed and Damascus is still without water.
This week, pro-government sources reported that 2,600 rebels have laid down their arms in exchange for amnesty or the opportunity of joining the National Defense Forces (NDF), while buses have arrived to take other militants to Idlib.27.https://twitter.com/MIG29_/status/82025945372343910528.https://twitter.com/MIG29_/status/82532520737210368029.https://twitter.com/NatDefFor/status/825267568701218816 These same sources report that other rebels have refused both options and are still in direct conflict with loyalist government forces.30.https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/201701261050018003-syria-militants-arms/ None of these reports have been independently verified. With the fighting drawing to a close, it remains to be seen how long it will take for the water to run clear.
Update: November 2017
The Human Rights Council released a report on 10th March 2017 regarding human rights abuses and humanitarian law violations in Syria between July 21st 2016 and February 28th 2017. In this report, the Council stated that the al-Fijeh spring was bombed by the Syrian Air Force multiple times. According to the report the presence of armed rebel groups at the spring constituted a military target, but that the bombing cut off five million people’s access to water made the bombing “grossly disproportionate”.31.http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session34/_layouts/15/WopiFrame.aspx?sourcedoc=/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session34/Documents/A_HRC_34_CRP.3_E.docx&action=default&DefaultItemOpen=1