BEIRUT: Repair teams were poised to enter a restive region near Damascus on Saturday to begin work on restoring the Syrian capital’s water supply, state media said. Millions of people have been without water for weeks after fighting damaged key infrastructure in the Wadi Barada region that is the main water source for Damascus. Clashes continued there overnight and into Saturday morning, killing seven Syrian government soldiers and two civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. But by late morning, state media said maintenance teams had arrived in the area 15 km northwest of Damascus and were “prepared to enter” to begin repair work.
A source close to the government said a temporary ceasefire had been agreed to allow the repair crews to enter, though it could take days before the mains supply is restored. Fighting has raged in Wadi Barada for several weeks, despite the December 30 start of a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey. The truce has held across much of the country, though it does not apply to the IS group or former Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front, now known as Fateh al Sham Front. The government says Fateh al Sham is present in Wadi Barada, and blames rebels there for cutting water to Damascus since December 22.
Rebels deny the group is in the region and say the mains supply was severed after government strikes hit pumping facilities in the area. The fighting has left some 5.5 million people in Damascus and its suburbs facing water shortages, the United Nations warned earlier last week. It said sabotaging water supplies was a war crime but made no direct accusations of blame. Russia and Turkey have worked increasingly closely on the Syrian conflict and last month brokered a deal for civilians and surrendering rebels to leave Aleppo.
They want the ceasefire agreement to pave the way for new peace talks to be held in the Kazakh capital Astana later this month. But the fighting in Wadi Barada has already prompted rebels to halt talks to prepare for the Astana meeting, citing Syrian “violations” of the ceasefire. Both Moscow and Ankara have launched military interventions in Syria, with Turkey starting its Operation Euphrates Shield in August targeting both IS fighters and Kurdish militants.
After seizing several towns from IS, Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels are now focusing their attentions on Al Bab, a bastion in Aleppo province.
The Observatory said on Saturday that Turkey had sent major reinforcements to the area in apparent preparation for an operation against the town.
A US-backed alliance has also been advancing into IS-held territory as they press a drive towards the group’s de facto Syrian capital Raqa. — AFP