Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 3, 2017

Did Syrian rebels sabotage the water supplies of Damascus?

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:53 pm

Over the past six years, I have noticed time and time again that a seemingly organized campaign has been mounted to accuse rebels of the kind of atrocity that the regime carries out routinely, with the “false flag” accusation that they used Sarin gas on their own supporters in East Ghouta the most notorious case.

In the latest instance, the Assadists are pushing the line that the rebels in Wadi Barada, a rural suburb northwest of Damascus, have either blown up the water pumps that supply the city with water or contaminated it with diesel fuel to make it undrinkable. Whether it is the clearly deranged Moon of Alabama or “professional” journalists like Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal, they automatically take the side of a dictatorship that has used water as a weapon against rebel-held villages and cities from the very beginning of the war.




Ben Norton, whose tweet referred his followers to a Reuters article, probably didn’t bother to read the whole thing and was content to use the heading to condemn the rebels. If he wasn’t so lazy and so biased, he might have discovered that the very article undermined his claim: “The rebels in Wadi Barada have allowed government water authority engineers to maintain and operate the pumping station and supply Damascus since they took control of the area in 2012.”

There is also the possibility that indiscriminate barrel bombing might have damaged the water pumping station especially since the Syrian air force has never been noted for careful targeting. When you drop a 50-gallon steel drum filled with dynamite, nails, scrap iron, ball bearings and the like from a thousand feet above ground, accidents will happen. Of course, since the goal is only to kill or maim men, women and children who have the gumption to oppose a mafia state, who can blame Assad when a few of the barrel bombs go astray? Nobody’s perfect.

This frame grab from video provided By the Wadi Barada, a Syrian opposition media outlet that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows the damaged Ain el-Fijeh water processing facility which supply the capital, northwest of Damascus, Syria. Water supplies to Damascus have been largely cut off for nearly two weeks because of fighting between pro-government forces and rebels for control of the main tributary, forcing millions in the Syrian capital to scramble for enough to drink and wash with. The cut-off is a major challenge to the government’s effort throughout the nearly 6-year-old civil war to keep the capital as insulated as possible from the effects of the conflict tearing apart much of the country. (Wadi Barada, via AP)

This frame grab from video provided By the Wadi Barada, a Syrian opposition media outlet that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows the damaged Ain el-Fijeh water processing facility which supply the capital, northwest of Damascus, Syria. Water supplies to Damascus have been largely cut off for nearly two weeks because of fighting between pro-government forces and rebels for control of the main tributary, forcing millions in the Syrian capital to scramble for enough to drink and wash with. The cut-off is a major challenge to the government’s effort throughout the nearly 6-year-old civil war to keep the capital as insulated as possible from the effects of the conflict tearing apart much of the country. (Wadi Barada, via AP)

For a useful report on Wadi Barada written by a genuine journalist rather than a third-rate propagandist like Norton or Blumenthal, I recommend Alisa Reznick’s “Weaponizing War” in the Boston Review. She makes it abundantly clear why the rebels would be loath to cut off water to Damascus:

Each time rebels have shut off the water supply, they have restored it within a few days, according to Baradawi. He says this is partly because the spring also supplies the Wadi Barada villages along the road to Damascus and opposition-aligned neighborhoods inside the capital. Moreover, the rebels receive a major blow when government forces inevitably retaliate.

“For two days [after the shutoff] the regime was hitting Ain al-Fijah with heavy shelling, dropping barrel bombs and mortars and sending snipers into the mountains,” he said. “Entire buildings were hit with families living in them. It was really barbaric, and it turned the people against the FSA.”

Even after the water flowed again in Damascus, the regime continued to punish Ain al-Fijah. In August, Assad’s forces ordered a blockade, causing garbage services, electricity, and traffic from the capital to cease. Baradawi said only 150 or so students and government workers with business in Damascus were allowed to exit or enter the area; they were prohibited from carrying food and fuel back inside.

“People have started eating leaves,” Baradawi said when we spoke in November. “All the people want now is to find a student going to Damascus who can buy one potato. A kilo of sugar is a dream.”

The blockade also prevents chlorination of the water pumped back to Wadi Barada from the station on Mount Qasioun, sparking a host of sanitation concerns. Cholera and Hepatitis A are currently on the rise as families use untreated water to drink and cook food. Local doctors have documented some three hundred cases of stomach illnesses since the blockade began.

“We can say the regime 100 percent won this one,” Baradawi tells me in resigned tones. The blockade has been so effective that, he believes, residents no longer see the spring as a useful bargaining chip.

There’s another dimension to this story that would likely be of zero interest to either Norton or Blumenthal who are content to see Syria as merely a pawn in the geopolitical chess game. If the USA is playing white, they would cheer on the black player even if he was a combination of Somoza and Batista. Come to think of it, that pretty much describes Bashar al-Assad.

On December 14th, I wrote an article on the economic roots of the Syrian revolution that called attention to the ruling class’s exploitation of water resources that drove the rural poor to rise up. The Middle East Report (MERIP), another worthwhile magazine that would never bother to consider Norton or Blumenthal’s articles publishable and probably not even worth lining a birdcage with, documents how the people of Wadi Barada became part of this movement. According to author Mohammad Raba‘a, a Syrian researcher and journalist, the rural region northwest of Damascus was the typical victim of the mafia/bourgeois state:

But the disaffection with the regime in Wadi Barada is of long standing and rooted in exploitation of the area’s water and land to shore up the regime’s support in Damascus and among privileged strata of Syrian society. Much of the groundwater in the formerly productive farming valley was pumped out to supply the capital city. In the 1970s and 1980s, the regime expropriated vast tracts of land in Wadi Barada, including mountain ridges, “for the public good.” These lands were designated for public buildings such as schools, hospitals or military facilities, but in practice most plots were sold (or given) to high-level officials and businessmen who built private homes.

Over the last year, even as Wadi Barada and environs become war zones, the regime is applying a new version of this old strategy with a series of large-scale tourism developments in the area. In June 2014, for example, the state-run Tishrin newspaper announced that the Ministry of Tourism has licensed a new complex including a four-star hotel and a swimming pool. The complex will cost 3.5 billion Syrian pounds (over $185 million) and cover an area of 10,808 square meters. Tishrin did not mention the names of the investors, the means by which the lands would be obtained or the timeline for the construction. The drive for real estate takes advantage of the growing poverty among the population to acquire valuable land at a fraction of the pre-conflict price.

If Norton and Blumenthal had not become such shallow propagandists, this is the kind of story that they could have written. Both of them could discriminate between good and evil and truth and falsehood once upon a time. Too bad they lost that ability in pursuit of a journalism career inspired apparently by Judith Miller.


  1. Sounds like a bunch of BS to me. Rebels in charge of logistics consider every drop of diesel fuel more precious than water or gold. Rebels in charge of feeding guerrilla fighters consider every drop of fresh water more precious than gold or diesel fuel. The idea of negating the 2 most valuable liquid commodities in wartime by mixing them, moreover, the idea that the now stronger side in this war would have security lax enough to allow sabotage of its base population’s water supply strains credulity. If it’s true the water was sabotaged by diesel dumping it’s clearly the work of organized State sponsored spooks. Which government arranged it is the question?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 4, 2017 @ 1:18 am

  2. What’s the latest Assadist line, btw? That rebels poisoned their water (getting rid of the valuable resources as Karl mentions above) – which first and foremost affects the rebel-held villages – and then they bombed the water supply in order to spoil their plan? Or is it that because of the poisoning, government has no choice but to bomb the facility (instead of simply cutting off the water supply)?

    Comment by Michal Lipták — January 4, 2017 @ 7:50 am

  3. Of course we all know that the ‘rebels’ do no bad things, and that the ‘regime’ does no good things.. blah blah blah. Still has nothing to do with the basic duty to oppose the foreign machinations of one’s own imperialist bourgeoisie… in this case yet another Washington-orchestrated proxy war in the Middle East.

    U.S. and other Western imperialist powers bear full responsibility for ALL the human costs of these adventures – the direct and indirect products of intervention, plunder and political manipulations going back over a century.

    Comment by Lumpy Lang — January 5, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

  4. Lumpy, you are as provincial as the principles you espouse. We the people of the region, oppose ALL imperialist powers, and so should you if you are a real socialist.

    As others have pointed out, class struggle does not stop at the borders of the U.S.A. If you really want to oppose ‘your own’ imperialist state, you have to understand the interplay of different imperialist powers as well as regional powers. Otherwise, you end up supporting some other asshole, just not your own.

    Comment by Reza — January 5, 2017 @ 5:02 pm

  5. Reza,
    Is it realistic to expect people to understand the interplay of different imperialist powers and well as regional powers? My experience is that most people do not understand what is going on in their own neighborhood let alone their own country or the world. How are people in Europe or North America supposed to make sense of what is going on in Syria, or the Ukraine, or , Eritrea, or Venezuala or any where else for that matter when there is no independent,reliable source of information for them to turn to. It makes sense to rely on people who have been there, such a refugees. I was once told a million different things about Cuba by refugees from Cuba. It does no good to rely on eyewitness testimony from Iranians about Iran or Syrian refugees from Syria. Everyone has their won Ax to grind.
    Yesterday I was watching a program about eastern Europe. A part of the program was about Poland. The program interviewed men who had formed a militia to fight the Russians should they want to return to Poland. The chances which they placed at 50-50. The members of this group said that those of us further west who downplayed the Russian threat are to far away to understand how real the threat is. I myself think that these grown men are just looking for an excuse to go out and play soldier and pretend that they are doing something productive rather than childish. But then look at who their role models are. Look at what they pick up from the media that is easily available to them.
    Yesterday I had on a Deutschewelle program. Some former BBC reporter was working for DW. He was interviewing some Russian official. The reporter accussed Russian of acting belegerently in the Ukraine and in other places. He accused Russia of gun boat diplomacy because when some G8 or G20 meeting was being held in Australia Russia sent 4 warships to Australia. I thought damn is that stupid. Those warships could have been sunk in 15 seconds if they had not been welcome. Just on percision guided munition to the ammunition magazine of those ships would have caused their complete disintegration down to the molecular level. If the reporter had considered that he certainly did not let that stop him from doing his job. These hillbillies in Poland and this jerk off working for DW are the reality of humanity. They will never meet the standards that you have set for them.
    BUT every now and then there are facts that can be deemed to be reliable. Facts that are relevent and can be used as indirect evidence as to the role of players in events when that role can not be directly observed by us in the (non)working class. One example is that the EU was offering the Ukraine billions of dollars at a time it was refusing Greece billions of dollars. That is a fact that can lead to some very damning conclusions. Another fact is that the United States government did not warn Erdogan that military officers were planning a coup in Turkey. That can lead to some quite damning conclusions as well.
    Another is that an oil pipeline was never built across Saudia Arabia so that oil would not have to be shipped through the Straits of Hormuz. There are a few people who can make sense of these clues. Sadly they lack the power to use their understanding of how everything fits together to be able to help those who are harmed by the forces shapeing the planet.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — January 5, 2017 @ 8:25 pm

  6. GENEVA: Syria’s air force deliberately bombed water sources in December, a war crime that cut off water for 5.5 million people in and around the capital Damascus, the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said Tuesday.

    The commission said it had found no evidence of deliberate contamination of the water supply or demolition by armed groups, as the Syrian government maintained at the time.

    March 14 2017

    Comment by Matthew Jackson — March 14, 2017 @ 10:04 am

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