The Damascus suburbs of Wadi (Valley) Barada, home to the biblical river of Barada, has been under a brutal regime offensive led by Hezbollah ground forces and backed by regime firepower since the 22nd of December 2016. According to local activists and the Wadi Barada Media Centre, more than 100 civilians have been killed since the start of the regime campaign and [ ] wounded.
UPDATE (12th January): At the time of writing this piece, we have been informed that a large scale massacre has occurred in Wadi Barada, killing 6 residents, including a 12 year old girl. 60 barrel bombs have been dropped on the villages of Bassema and Ein el-Feijah, which combined have an area of only five square kilometres. It has also been reported today (12th January) that the Russian airforce as well has joined the bombing of Wadi Barada, further violating the ceasefire it had agreed with Turkey.
The water spring in the village of Ein el-Feija in the Barada valley – which continues to be damaged by regime shells, missiles, airstrikes and heavy machine gun fire as part of the regime’s attempts to capture the village – provides the city of Damascus with 70% of its clean water supply. Since the launching of the regime offensive on December 22 the UN OCHA agency estimates that at least 4 million residents have been cut off from clean drinking water.
Syria Solidarity Campaign’s sources in Wadi Barada have also confirmed to us today that the Media Centre in Wadi Barada itself was bombed by the regime’s warplanes yesterday morning, leading to the death of many of the media activists working there.
[Contrary to regime-propagated reports, there has been no truce agreed with the locals in Wadi Barada. The Ein el-Feija spring continues to be in the hands of the locals, who had previously made a call for UN repair workshops to enter the Spring to fix the damaged pumps.]
The local and civil society organisations issued a call to the UN, offering them safe access for repair workships to enter the spring to fix the damaged pumps. Syria Solidarity Campain sources on the ground have told us that the call went “ignored” and “not responded to” by the UN.
Since then, negotiations have occurred between the locals and a regime delegation. A truce was agreed on the 12th January. The terms of the truce were:
On the 13th of January
Friday 6th January: Footage of regime aerial bombardment (using unguided barrel bombs) of the town of Ein el-Feija, which hosts the spring facility. Ein el-Feija only has an area of three square kilometers:
Wednesday 11th January – Bombardment taking place “tens of metres” away from the spring, according to the narrator:
Sunday 9th January: “More than 30 airstrikes, 40 “Elephant” surface-to-surface missiles, 60 mortar shells by the regime and Hezbollah on the villages of Ein al-Feija and Basima in the Wadi Barada area of the countryside of Damascus in the past two days, in a continuous violation of the ceasefire”
Tuesday 11th January: “5 raids by military warplanes (MIG) with tens of missiles.
Approximately 130 “Elephant” rockets from the Republican Guard
More than 40 barrel bombs from the military helicopters
More than 300 missiles including mortars and Katyusha and Grad from Hezbollah
Some of the missiles carried poison chlorine gas.
In addition to heavy and medium machine guns and snipers and others
All this was only on the village of Basima, the smallest village in Wady Barda with a size of two square kilometres
And it was only today.”
Moment of dropping Barrel bombs on the village of Basima, in Wadi Barada:
Destruction to houses in Ein el-Feija from regime airstrikes. Activists have told SSC that more than 90% of the village has been destroyed:
Many villages within the valley have been emptied as a result of the regime assault. The village of Basima, once home to 15,000 residents, and the town of Ein al-Fijah – 30,000 residents – have now been emptied from residents and become “ghost towns”. This may again be part of a sectarian cleansing strategy, with the forced displacement (or “evacuation”) of civilians aimed at long-term demographic change, a policy which the regime has employed elsewhere in Syria, notoriously in Homs (whereby residents of 14 districts of the city “evacuated” have still not been allowed to return since 2014 – with others from Assad’s sect “settling” in their place) and Daraya (where again Iraqi Shias have been invited to take the place of “evacuated” Sunni locals).
We have also been informed that in its most recent offensive on Wednesday, the regime has used chlorine gas, injuring two residents, though they have recovered after treatment. The regime was also reported by media activists to Al-Jazeera Arabic to have dropped Napalm (as has occurred elsewhere in Syria).
The medical situation in Wadi Barada is also dire, with a high rise in severe diarrhea and fever especially amongst children. The drinking of unsterilised contaminated water and overcrowding of the displaced into mosques and houses has helped to spread disease. The lack of clean water (as well as the high price of that which is available) has also led to the rise of food poisoning as many families at home are not “washing their fruit and vegetables properly”, whilst those who have preferred to feed their children in local restaurants thinking that it is safer have in fact contributed to the highest proportion of food poisoning cases, with local restaurants turning out to have “too little water to wash plates and cleaning utensils”. The local medical committee and pharmacies have used up their reserve of medications for diabetes, heart, blood pressure and arterial disease.
The regime has also cut off telephone communications, mobile communications, internet communications and electricity, and even target satellite communications, further adding to the difficulties of those besieged.
The regime’s bombardment of Wadi Barada and its exclusion from the Turkish-Russian agreed ceasefire justified by citing the presence of “Jabhat al-Nusra” (an area known for years not to have any Nusra presence) shows the substantively flawed nature of any ceasefire which takes as a “partner” and excludes the main terrorist in the conflict, the Assad regime, whereby the regime will target any revolutionary-held area under the pretext of “attacking Nusra”. The pro-Assad bias of both the US-led Coalition and Russia was fully represented in its selective excluding of Jabhat Fath al-Sham (al-Nusra previously) from the ceasefire; any objective analysis of the Syrian conflict (including from UN and Western Human Rights reports) will show that when it comes to “terrorism” towards innocents, no faction in Syria (including Jabhat Fath al-Sham/al-Nusra) comes close to the regime in any way, shape or form. This is before mentioning that the regime has in the past in fact targeted towns in which protests against Nusra took place, released extremists from its prisons who would become high commanders in extremist groups including ISIS and has long been buying oil from both ISIS and Al-Nusra.
It should be noted that no government in history has deployed as much aerial bombardment inside its own borders as the Assad regime (this has taken place on an almost daily basis since mid-2012 until today). Syria’s once largest city of Aleppo became the most bombarded city in the world since the Second World War. The US-led Coalition (in which the UK plays a key part) has not only stopped regional allies from providing the defensive weaponry needed for Syrians to have defended themselves during these World War levels of aerial bombardment, refused to allow civil defence forces on the ground to have radar warnings of incoming airstrikes, but have actually shared the same skies as this genocidal mass-murdering regime (intrinsically involving the sharing of intelligence with the regime) to jointly bombard Syrian territories continuously since 2014 (with joint US-regime bombardments continuing even after the 2015 intervention of Russia).
The UK has for years proclaimed that it stands against the Assad regime. Yet despite these proclamations we find that the UK continues to provide major military aid to regional states which have proven crucial in the survival of the Assad regime – prime amongst them the Iraqi state.
The UK like the US has much leverage it could use to halt the current offensives. The bulk of the pro-regime forces which in the last year have taken Aleppo, Daraya and are now attempting to take Wadi Barada are overwhelmingly foreign paramilitary brigades arriving from states backed by Western governments, such as Iraq and Lebanon. Whilst these brigades are also backed by Iran, they are simultaneously backed by their respective national states. In Iraq, these sectarian paramilitary brigades are directly supported – both by airstrikes and arms – by the US-led “anti-ISIS” coalition and have recently been officially integrated into the Iraqi armed forces. Some of the brigades have even been documented fighting for Assad in Syria with US tanks obtained in Iraq. The members of the Iraqi brigades in Syria are part of the Iraqi government, paid salaries by the Western-backed Iraqi government and are legally subject to the Iraqi Prime Minister’s authority. Was the invasion of Iraq – presumably in the name of bringing democracy to the region – intended instead to help Assad later crush the genuine demands for democracy which broke out in Syria in 2011?
Meanwhile whilst Hezbollah is not part of the Lebanese Army, the major support by the US-led Coalition to the Lebanese Army has reportedly allowed it to cover Hezbollah’s rear and flank against domestic rivals, allowing the latter to focus on supporting Assad in Syria.The Lebanese Army has been described as an effective “auxillary” of Hezbollah and part of a “joint LAF-Hezbollah counter-insurgency targeting the Syrian opposition”. The Lebanese Army has been “actively aiding Hezbollah in its war effort in Syria. This assistance has ranged from participation in shelling positions across the border in the Qalamoun region in Syria, to securing Hezbollah’s homefront. This includes patrolling and securing logistical routes and the transfer of Hezbollah materiel and personnel into Syria, monitoring and raiding Syrian refugee camps, and closing off Lebanese areas and towns on the border with Syria”.
Over the past few years the Lebanese Army has been closing the border in only one direction – from and not into Syria – and not to totally close the border, allowing Hezbollah to continue its invasion of Syria. Western arms to Lebanon have thus been “deployed in a manner that relieves Hezbollah and assists its war effort”. It has coordinated major military operations with Hezbollah and allows it through its checkpoints to fight in Syria. It has also been accused of coordination with the Syrian Army itself, including abusing and unlawfully deporting back to the hands of the regime Syrian refugees for almost certain torture and/or death. Hezbollah itself has been part of the UK-recognised Lebanese government since 2014, forming more than third of its members, whilst the recently-elected Lebanese President Michel Auon is a declared Hezbollah supporter.
– The UK must stop all military aid and support to the Iraqi army until the full withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Syria. The UK must stop all military aid and support to Lebanon until the full withdrawal of Hezbollah.
– The UK must stop all military aid and support to the Egyptian regime until it ends its military support to the Assad regime.
– The UK, along with the US, should withdraw from the Military Operations Centre (known as the “MOC”) in Amman, which controls the entry of supplies into South Syria and which has effectively enforced a freeze on anti-regime rebel operations in South Syria since 2015; leading to the fall of cities such as Daraya and allowing pro-regime forces to focus single-handedly on Aleppo. The UK and US must stop any interference and blockading of defensive weaponry – including anti-aircraft systems – by allies of the Free Syrian Army.
Similarly the UK must also stop all support to Jordan until it lifts its blockade on the entry of weaponry needed for the people of Southern Syria to defend themselves. As well as blocking weaponry the Jordanian government has long been accused of stealing arms meant for the Free Syrian Army.
– The UK must stop military support to the YPG-led “Syrian Democratic Forces”, which includes a pro-Assad tribal force (Jaish al-Sanadeed) and which has played a crucial role in the recent fall of Aleppo.
– The UK must freeze all arms export licenses to Iran, including military electronic technology, reportedly valued at more than £800 million in 2013 and £316 million in 2015 (making it the fourth largest recipient in terms of value of contracts after Israel, Saudi Arabia and China). The UK government is currently encouraging investment in Iran, showing that political and economic rapprochement with Iran has come at the same time as its crucial role in supporting Assad’s genocide.
FOR REVIEW: [The UK should sanction trade with Iranian government-linked firms, including a freeze on new contracts currently being negotiated.]
– The UK must freeze any outstanding arms export licenses to Russia, which were reported to still exist in the last Committee on Arms Exports parliamentary report in 2015 (despite Ukraine-related sanctions), if any. These were valued at £86 million in 2013 and £168 million in 2015, including “components for military helicopters, cryptographic software, equipment employing cryptography, equipment for the use of military helicopters, small arms ammunition and software for equipment employing cryptography”.
The UK is one of Russia’s biggest trade partners, relying on it for a large section of its energy requirements and exporting billions of pounds worth of exports. The UK government website extols the opportunities for investment in Russia, at the same time as it commits crimes in Syria.
FOR REVIEW: [The UK government should sanction trade with Russian government-linked firms.]
FOR REVIEW: [The UK government must work to ensure that humanitarian aid and access are allowed in to the besieged towns of Wadi Barada.]
Anything less than taking these measures represents effectively siding with the Assad regime, no matter what the rhetoric of “condemnation” offered, rhetoric which we have long been accustomed to for six years whilst Assad’s genocidal policies and unprecedented aerial bombardments have continued unabated and international forces have occupied our country.