Sa‘id has always loved swimming. When he was little, he spent summer afternoons with his friends on the banks of Syria’s Barada River. When the river level started to drop, in the mid-1990s, he went to a swimming pool newly opened in the nearby village of Basima. The pool belongs to the Abu al-Nour Foundation, an Islamic organization based in the capital of Damascus, where thousands of students come from across the world to train as imams. Within a few months of his first visit to the pool, Sa‘id had started attending the twice-weekly lectures delivered by the grand mufti of Syria and founder of Abu al-Nour, the Sufi sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro. He began talking to villagers about “the straight path” prescribed in the Qur’an and took regular busloads of people from his native region of Wadi Barada to the Islamic foundation. His activities did not attract the attention of the Syrian security services because the government considered Kuftaro’s Sufism non-threatening.
But then Sa‘id moved to the coastal city of Jabla, where he met a group of men who introduced him to puritanical salafi doctrine. By the time he started working, in a factory in Damascus, all of his friends were salafis. “Those swimming trips changed my life,” Sa‘id says now. “The regime condoned—even celebrated—Sufi preaching and advocacy. It was not until I developed new ideas and changed my appearance”—growing a beard, wearing the shortened trousers typical of salafi garb—“that the intelligence services started chasing me.”
Shortly after the beginning of the popular uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Asad in March 2011, Sa‘id was detained for two months by Syrian intelligence after an informer reported that he was leading protests in Wadi Barada. Upon his release, he contacted an old salafi friend and started working with him to funnel money and weapons to those in Wadi Barada who wanted to take up arms against the regime. That friend was Sheikh Zahran ‘Alloush, now military chief of the Saudi-backed Islamic Front and leader of the Army of Islam that operates in the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Eastern Ghouta.
“I did not believe in the protests in the beginning,” Sa‘id said. “I believe that warding off evil takes precedence over enjoining the good. I also believed that the authorities must be obeyed. But a Muslim should not hand over another Muslim to an oppressor. The only response to the way they treated our brothers in Dar‘a”—the southern town where the uprising began—“was the sword.”
By mid-2012, Sa‘id had joined Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda operating in Syria and Lebanon. Lately, however, he has switched his loyalty to the Islamic State, or ISIS, which is rapidly gaining ground in Wadi Barada, having won over an estimated 50 to 200 fighters from other rebel groups. The recruits are not all religious militants—they include convicted criminals and petty smugglers who change their political colors with every shift in the balance of power in the area.
Until the early 1980s, Wadi Barada was a fertile river valley known for its fruits and other crops, as well as a prime summer vacation spot. The Barada River watered the gardens of Damascus and the Ghouta plain beyond. Today, due largely to regime policies, the valley is considerably drier and poorer. But Wadi Barada has great strategic importance in the struggle for power in Syria. Located between the Syrian capital and the border with Lebanon, the valley is a thoroughfare connecting Damascus to the mountainous area of Qalamoun to the northwest. Qalamoun is a critical supply route for opposition fighters in Homs and the cities of the north. The Syrian army and its ally, the militia of Lebanese Hizballah, are engaged in heavy battle with Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebels for control of the region. (ISIS, for now, appears to be fighting the other opposition forces in Qalamoun.) Perhaps just as important as supply routes is the region’s snowfall: The runoff trickles into the catchment basin of the Fija spring, the main water source in Wadi Barada. Despite its depletion over the decades, the Fija spring provides two thirds of the drinking water consumed in the capital city.
On December 10, 2014, ISIS called on the opposition factions in Wadi Barada—mainly Jabhat al-Nusra—to swear allegiance to its self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and its local emir, a Jordanian named Sheikh Abu Bakr al-‘Attar. The jihadi group added that it planned to declare Wadi Barada part of its caliphate, as part of its baqa’ wa tamaddud (remain and expand) strategy. Thus far Jabhat al-Nusra has not sworn allegiance to Baghdadi, but a number of its members have. ‘Attar himself left al-Nusra at the end of 2014. An informed source in Wadi Barada claims that ISIS has three sleeper cells there awaiting orders. In early May, with the fighting erupting in Qalamoun, ISIS threatened civil servants in the area with death if they do not leave their jobs.
Sa‘id says that if ISIS comes to control Wadi Barada and the Fija spring, it would be a turning point in the war. The valley’s water has already been used as a weapon. In November 2014, two rival jihadi groups cut off the water supply to Damascus after the army bombed a number of villages in the valley. After three days, complaints from the capital’s increasingly thirsty population forced the Syrian army to negotiate with the rebels to turn the taps back on. Earlier, in February 2012, local men, at the time calling themselves the Free Syrian Army, seized control of the Fija spring after government forces had shelled Wadi Barada and killed dozens of civilians. These rebels threatened to cut off the flow of water, demanding that the army withdraw from Wadi Barada and that the shelling cease. After negotiations, the rebels handed the spring back to the technical personnel in charge.
Now the presence of ISIS has raised the stakes. “Our ISIS brothers are serious and professional in what they do,” Sa‘id said. “They shoot directly at the target. At the moment there are only a couple of hundred of them, but already they are addressing core problems in the area…. I cannot say this in public yet but soon Wadi Barada will be diyar al-tamkin”—the ISIS term for an area under its sway—“and ISIS will establish Islamic rule.”
A Strategic Valley
The layers of graffiti in Sa‘id’s home village of Kufayr al-Zayt say a lot about the recent history of Wadi Barada. On one mud-covered wall behind an old jasmine tree, there is a line from a speech by the former president Hafiz al-Asad during the 1973 war, rendered in elegant, multi-colored calligraphy: “Today, we are fighting the battle of honor and pride, in defense of our precious land, our glorious history and the heritage of our forefathers. We fight the battle, equipped with faith in God and ourselves, and with the solid and compelling determination that victory will be ours.” Further up the wall another faded slogan reads: “A nation led by Hafiz al-Asad will never prostrate itself.” An artist added this phrase in the early 1990s as a show of defiance of Israel and the West. Today, however, jihadis and their sympathizers interpret it as proof that Syria under the Asads—a Syria led by a secular authority and not a caliph—rejects Islam and its rituals.
On another wall one can still make out a painting of the flag of Syrian revolution. Over it a messy scrawl in black quotes the hadith: “A companion of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) asked him, ‘What is salvation?’ The Prophet said: ‘Restrain your tongue, stay at home and weep for your sin.’”
Since 2012, opposition fighters from different factions have taken control of swathes of the Damascus hinterlands, including Wadi Barada, as they advanced upon the capital. The regime is not giving in. A firmer grip on Wadi Barada would allow safe passage for Syrian army troops from Damascus to the combat zone in Qalamoun. The regime could also use this corridor to besiege Zabadani, a town partly in rebel hands since early 2012. At least until June 2011, Zabadani was the logistical hub for Iranian supply of Hizballah in Lebanon. In April 2010, Israeli and US officials accused Syria itself of transferring long-range Scud missiles to Hizballah via Zabadani.
The villages of Wadi Barada are distributed in four administrative districts that are part of Rif Dimashq or Damascus Countryside governorate—‘Ayn al-Fija, Madaya, Qudsaya and Zabadani. All four districts have witnessed fighting between the opposition and the army, which has bolstered its arsenal with PKC and DShK machine guns, 122-mm howitzers and T-72 battle tanks. The army has so far been unable to recapture Wadi Barada, however, as the rugged terrain makes it difficult to deploy infantry, missiles or artillery. Instead, the regime has tried aggressive police tactics, installing checkpoints on all roads to Wadi Barada and regularly arresting fighters and their relatives, as well as random civilians. It has also been trying to recruit locals as informers and National Defense Force paramilitaries.
The main military units operating in Wadi Barada are the Thirteenth and 104th Brigades of the Republican Guard. These troops are posted on hilltops and ridges from which they can easily fire upon targets in the valley below. In addition, forces of the 105th Brigade of the Republican Guard and the so-called Suicide Battalion are positioned in the area. The latter, made up of 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers, is attached to the Fourth Armored Division led by Bashar al-Asad’s brother, Mahir.
The army also has several installations in Wadi Barada, including two camps for Baath Party boy scouts, one of which serves as headquarters for army and Hizballah operations against Zabadani. The air defense base on Mt. Abel launches missiles at Zabadani and Qalamoun. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center in Jumraya is a key site for the production of chemical weapons. It has been repeatedly struck by Israel without retaliation. Meanwhile, the barrel bombs that the regime uses against civilians are manufactured at the Industrial Establishment of Defense in al-Hama, which is part of the Ministry of Defense.
Although there was no fighting in Wadi Barada until February 2012, many locals knew how to use firearms, particularly the smugglers who had frequently clashed with border patrols before 2011. Men who have joined the different opposition groups have acquired extensive combat experience over the past three years, especially during battles for Qalamoun and Zabadani. Some of them also had been to Iraq to fight US occupation forces there.
There are three main opposition factions: the nominally secular Free Syrian Army, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and another salafi coalition known mainly as Ahrar al-Sham. Ahrar al-Sham, in turn, is part of the Islamic Front, the Saudi-backed grouping whose constituent elements operate under various names in different parts of the country.
The rise of jihadi movements in Wadi Barada is surprising, to some extent, as hardline Islamist movements previously had little success in the valley. During the clampdown on the Syrian Muslim Brothers in the 1970s and 1980s, only one man from Wadi Barada was imprisoned. When he was released after a 17-year sentence, he had to write regular reports about his activities, movements and personal contacts. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the US invasion of Iraq, locals largely ignored attempts to establish jihadi movements, due either to lack of interest or to fear of the intelligence services. The regime was publicly committed to stamping out “Sunni extremism” on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border after the fighting at Nahr al-Barid refugee camp in Lebanon in May 2007. Many religious youth in Wadi Barada were summoned by security forces and warned to eschew “deviant thought” that “incites sedition.”
The foothold of ISIS in Wadi Barada seems to stem from a confrontation with rival jihadis at the strategic Fija spring. On December 28, 2014, armed men from ‘Ayn al-Fija, some of them with Jabhat al-Nusra, shot at some ISIS fighters who were trying to seize the water source. Although some of them were injured, the ISIS militants were ordered not to return fire. Subsequently, several local rebels followed the ISIS men back to their base in Ifra with the intention of swearing fealty to local emir Abu Bakr al-‘Attar. ‘Attar refused to accept, according to a local source, saying he wanted their allegiance “out of belief not out of sympathy.” He asked the youths to think it over and come back in a month. Around 20 al-Nusra fighters eventually went over to ISIS as a result.
Since ISIS entered Wadi Barada, there has been an uptick in assassinations, mostly local regime informers and civil servants, especially those who work for the Ministries of Interior or Defense. In late 2014, a policeman from the Department of Immigration and Passports went missing. A few days later, locals found his head in the fields. No one has claimed responsibility.
This and other killings are contributing to the change in the popular mood observable since late 2012. Regime backers believe that the population of Wadi Barada supports the government, pointing to the high turnout in the June 2014 presidential elections. “People here believe that President Asad is Syria’s savior,” says Ahmad, 57, a local school director and a staunch Baathist. “The government still pays our salaries and provides humanitarian aid. The terrorists are threatening me because I support order and stand with the government and President Asad. Should I listen to them and stop going to work? Who will feed my children? They are a bunch of criminals who thrive in this kind of chaos.”
Many in Wadi Barada know the jihadi rebels have marked them for death. Abu Muhammad, 59, a civil servant, is thus blacklisted despite the fact that three of his sons joined opposition groups early in the uprising. “If I quit my job, the regime will probably kill me and blame the opposition. The same has happened to friends of mine. I receive regular death threats and I am scared to go out at night. I am even afraid that relatives who belong to the opposition may assassinate me.” Abu Muhammad has never supported Bashar al-Asad or his father Hafiz. But he believes that “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”
Among the opposition fighters, too, there are many who have defected back to the side of the regime. On June 9, 2013, ‘Adnan Haydar, the emir of Wadi Barada appointed by Ahrar al-Sham, tortured and killed a prominent fighter close to Jabhat al-Nusra without trial. It was the first such murder of a jihadi leader by a rival in Wadi Barada. Ahrar al-Sham condemned the crime and vowed to bring Haydar to justice. Fearing for his life, Haydar joined the paramilitary National Defense Forces, where he created a special unit to protect his relative Ahmad Humam Haydar, 37, the newly appointed secretary of the Damascus Countryside governorate branch of the Baath Party and formerly the deputy minister of economy. The Baath Party branch secretary is on the opposition’s kill list for his “attempts to split the rows of the revolutionary factions” and for “allying himself with the regime against his own people.” ‘Adnan Haydar bought the only emergency clinic in Wadi Barada, and started arresting wounded rebel fighters for delivery to the regime.
But not everyone is convinced that Asad and the army can restore calm. A member of the Socialist Party in Wadi Barada who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the area is on the brink of major change. “If ISIS gains control of Wadi Barada, there will be more massacres and this will lead to a collapse of the central government in Damascus,” he said. “Asad has put a choice before the country: more chaos under him or more oppression under ISIS. The regime is not yet aware of how serious the issue is. There has to be change from within the regime. I blame Asad for the current situation. The government left us to be killed by ISIS and its sister organizations.”
Methods of Control
Since the beginning of protests in Wadi Barada, the regime has used a carrot-and-stick approach to reestablish its writ, on the one hand seeking to assuage popular grievances through negotiation and on the other hand mobilizing the army and security forces to suppress dissent.
Some of the grievances are general to Syria. Thousands of men in Wadi Barada are on the Syrian authorities’ wanted list for declining to enlist in compulsory military service. All males are drafted at the age of 18. (Females are not conscripted but may volunteer.) Other men who have completed their service are wanted because they are not enrolled in the mandatory reserve. Some of these men, of course, have joined the opposition factions. Cases of mistaken identity have led to arbitrary arrest at government checkpoints.
And then there is state violence. On May 24, 2013, with no apparent cause, the army shelled a funeral in Kufayr al-Zayt with a 122-mm howitzer and killed a number of civilians. The regime bombed the same village on April 11, 2014, killing another two civilians and wounding a third, also for reasons unknown. With the checkpoints on the roads, the regime has imposed a siege on Wadi Barada, with food, water and electricity all in short supply.
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.
Official reports on negotiation efforts make no reference to these underlying issues of resource distribution. Sometimes the tone is patronizing, depicting people in Wadi Barada as passively waiting for the Syrian army to “cleanse” the area of terrorists. At other times, the state-run media portrays talks between the regime and local civilians as if they were related merely to ending the fighting. On April 15, 2013, for example, Tishrin wrote that notables from Wadi Barada meeting with the prime minister had “listened to the language of reason and abandoned their weapons in the absolute conviction that a solution can only be achieved in Syria through love, dialogue and the renouncing of violence and hatred.”
In return for the notables’ good will, the government has done nothing to break the siege around the villages of Wadi Barada. It has neither released prisoners from the area nor helped families to find out what has happened to them. Some of the notables who participated in these meetings were killed by jihadis for being “informers.” Others have left Wadi Barada to escape a similar fate.
This treatment has helped to keep many in Wadi Barada hostile to the regime, despite the jihadi encroachments, and continued to push locals into the various armed opposition groups. Many people I interviewed in Wadi Barada believe that the Asad family was brought to power by the West to protect Israel. They say that Iran occupies Syria, and that Iran is using Asad and other proxies to stave off confrontation with Israel. “While Israel targets Iranians and Hizballah elements in Syria, Asad retaliates by sending his troops to Dar‘a and Aleppo,” one young fighter said. “He will never dare to enter a war with Israel. But it is his mission to keep us Syrians weak, oppressed and silent.”
The jihadi groups, the regime and its allies, especially Hizballah, spent the winter months girding themselves for battle in Qalamoun, to be launched when the weather was suitable. Strategic territory is at stake, and so is the runoff from the snows on Qalamoun’s peaks. On March 8, a Syrian government official told the state news agency that the Fija spring was overflowing at 9 cubic meters per second. The official pointed out that “rainfall and snowfall this season was unprecedented in the past 90 years.”
The snow is now melting and the fight has begun. Today’s arena is Qalamoun; tomorrow’s may be Wadi Barada, the prize, as always, being the valley’s water.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Francesca de Châtel for her help with this article.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article said barrel bombs are made at the Management Productivity Establishment in Dummar. They are made at the Industrial Establishment of Defense in al-Hama. We regret the error.