The murder of the Wadi Barada mediator shows that the armed opposition’s regional sponsors will stop at nothing to hinder any peace deals
By Abdel Bari Atwan
If there had been any doubt that armed opposition groups were responsible for the cutting-off of water from the five million inhabitants of the Syrian capital, this will have been dispelled by Saturday’s assassination of Ahmad al-Ghadban.
The killing will also massively discredit the opposition in the eyes of most Syrians and many others in the Arab and Islamic worlds and beyond, casting the rebels as a brutal and treacherous bunch who break the agreements they make and murder go-betweens and messengers.
Ghadban, a retired army major-general, had been appointed by the Syrian president to mediate with armed groups controlling the Wadi Baradi area, source of most of the greater Damascus area’s drinking water, after they damaged a key pumping station and contaminated water supplies last month, causing severe water shortages in the capital and its environs. As a widely respected local man, he succeeded in negotiating a cease-fire and reconciliation accord that would allow maintenance teams and engineers to repair the damaged facilities and restore the water supply to the capital. He was shot to death after emerging from a meeting with rebel leaders by a member of one of the groups that was party to the deal.
Evidently, there are factions within the opposition, acting at the behest of the governments that sponsor them, which do not want the agreement to hold, the reconciliation process to get underway or for calm to be restored to Wadi Barada, thereby ending further bloodshed and the use of water as a weapon to exert pressure.
This, under any reading of international humanitarian law, amounts to a war crime.
It is no surprise that the armed opposition factions should be divided over the question of restoring the capital’s water supplies. Many of them take their orders from Arab paymasters who are infuriated at the way their role in Syria has been diminished, especially since the Syrian army’s recovery of Aleppo. They and their Syrian client-groups have been excluded from the new peace process launched in its aftermath, which is to be inaugurated in the Kazakh capital of Astana on 23 January, and they have been side-lined by the growing rapprochement between Turkey and Russia.
These countries have no qualms, therefore, about doing whatever they can to sabotage any peace agreements that are reached, whether in Wadi Barada or elsewhere. Having set out to destroy Syria by channelling billions of dollars and thousands of tons of arms to fan the flames of war in the country, they do not care if the inhabitants of Damascus die of thirst or the Syrian opposition’s image is harmed.
It is worth recalling in this regard the recently-leaked voice recording attributed to leading opposition figure Michel Kilo in which bitterly criticized the opposition’s Saudi and Gulf sponsors. He said that the Saudis did not want either a democratic or an Islamist government in Syria, as neither would be conducive to their interests, and were instead intent on plunging the country into perpetual chaos.
For his part, Muath al-Khatib, former head of the Syrian National Coalition, condemned the indiscipline of the armed groups, especially their torching of buses that were due to evacuate civilians from the opposition-besieged villages of Kafraya and Foua as part of the Aleppo cease-fire deal. He remarked that these groups did not emerge from a vacuum but were tools of regional powers, and that their actions had resulted in the ruination of Syria and the demonization of Islam as a whole
The assassination of Ghadban had the same purpose as the torching of the busses in Kafraya and Foua and the cutting-off of water from the five million inhabitants of Damascus (most of them – and one regrets having to use the label – fellow Sunnis): to cause destruction, spread chaos, prolong the bloodletting and obstruct dialogue and attempts to reach a political settlement.
It seems to have succeeded up to a point. Following the mediator’s murder, the Syrian authorities concluded there was no point in negotiating with groups that do not keep their promises, withdrew its water maintenance teams and engineers on the grounds that their lives were in danger, and began preparations for a major military offensive on Wadi Barada.
This means more people on both sides will be killed and maimed and the water crisis in the capital will persist, outcomes that can only be desired by enemies of all Syrians whichever side they stand on.
There can be no doubt that the truth is becoming increasingly apparent to the Syrian people. Many who were previously deceived now appreciate the extent of the plot that was hatched behind closed doors, with Arab participation and the connivance of some of their compatriots, to destroy their country and plunge it into the anarchy that has plagued it these past six years.
An awakening is taking place and is rapidly gathering moment. It suggests that a possible political solution is coming closer than it has ever been before. We can only hope that our optimism is not misplaced.