PHOTO: Destruction in Wadi Barada from pro-Assad attacks, late December 2016
UPDATE 1500 GMT: Pro-opposition activists say the pro-Assad assault on Wadi Barada and the area near the al-Fija springs is ongoing:
Around 40 barrel bombs were dropped by regime helicopters on Ein al-Fijeh today while heavy clashes continue bet. rebels & Hezbollah/regime
— Sami (@Paradoxy13) January 26, 2017
ORIGINAL ENTRY: Defying Tuesday’s ceasefire annoucement by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, the Assad regime is continuing its month-long offensive to overrun the Wadi Barada area, northwest of Damascus.
Hezbollah and regime forces continued regular mortar fire on Wednesday, forcing thousands of civilians to seek underground shelter, according to a statement from local opposition sources.
The sources said the attacks “are targeting anyone and everyone, regardless of age.” Samer Rihan, director of the Ein al-Fijeh Medical Center, told Syria Direct:
There are 50-60 people huddled together in a single basement. If you want to know what the ugly side of war looks like, this is it, and we’re living it.
The pro-Assad offensive began on December 22, continuing despite a December 30 national ceasefire declared by Russia — the Assad regime’s essential ally, alongside Iran — and Turkey. President Assad said attacks would continue until Wadi Barada, with 10 villages and between 50,000 and 100,000 people, was cleared of “terrorists”.
Two local ceasefire agreements have broken down, one when the mutually-agreed negotiator, retired Syrian Army General Ahmad Gharban, was shot and killed in disputed circumstances.
Wadi Barada is strategic because of the al-Fija springs, which provide more than 60% of Damascus’s water. Regime airstrikes damaged the pumping station in late December, cutting off supplies to more than 5 million people in and near the capital.
Hezbollah and the regime have captured three of the 10 villages. However, despite controlling the high ground surrounding Wadi Barada, the forces have been unable to move into Ein al-Fijeh near the springs.
Desperate Attempts to Provide Medical Care
Amid the near-constant bombardment, the one limited medical center has been struggled to provide essential care for the wounded.
“We have to resort to amputations so frequently because given our medical training, that’s often all that we can do to keep someone from dying,” Rihan, the medical center’s director, said. “We’re not trained for this…and we’ve lost friends because there’s nothing we can do other than stanch the bleeding and give them more blood.”
The four-bed mobile medical center has moved three times since December 22. Two medical staff have been killed and six injured by bombardment.
“There are so many cases that require emergency medical treatment,” Rihan added. “But the regime hasn’t let a single one of these cases out of Wadi Barada during this campaign despite our protests, and it’s clear they don’t care about us.”
Local civil society organizations said Tuesday that at least 200 people have been killed and 400 injured. About 60% of the casualties are women and children. More than 20 people have died because they could not get medicine for chronic conditions.
An estimated 45,000 people have lost their homes and Civil Defense is no longer operating amid a siege which has blocked food, medicine, and basic supplies.
“People here are tired. They’re sick, they have nothing to eat and they want a political solution that brings about a ceasefire and the end of the blockade,” Muath al-Qalamouni, a pro-opposition journalist inside Wadi Barada, told Syria Direct. “This war has consumed the civilians…and they feel powerless.”
Assad Meets Senior Iranian Official
President Assad has met a senior Iranian official in Damascus, two days after the declaration of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian ceasefire.
Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the special assistant to Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, and Assad said they support the cessation of hostilities agreement.
However, neither referred to the ongoing Hezbollah-regime offensive, supported by Iran, on the Wadi Barada area northwest of Damascus.
Abdollahian’s trip, including a discussion with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, is the latest Iranian mission to Syria amid Russian and Turkish maneuvers for a ceasefire and political talks. Assad met top MP Alaeddin Boroujerdi on January 4 and the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, on January 8.
Facing Jabhat Fatah al-Sham Attacks, Rebel Groups Join Ahrar al-Sham
Facing attacks by the jihadists of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, rebel groups are joining the rebellion’s largest faction, Ahrar al-Sham.
Groups announcing their accession include battalions of Jaish al-Mujahideen, whose positions were seized by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham earlier this week, and faction Kataeb Thuwar al-Sham.
Latest reports say Suqour al-Sham, the Idlib branch of Jaish al-Islam, the Fastaqim Union, and Jabha Shamia have also joined Ahrar al-Sham, which has said any attack on the groups is a declaration of war to which it will respond.
Ahrar al-Sham leader Abu Ammar al-Omar said in an audio message on Wednesday, “If the fighting continues and if one party continues to do an injustice to another, then we will not allow this to pass, regardless of the cost, even if we become victims of this.”
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra and linked to Al Qa’eda, moved on rebel headquarters and ammunition warehouses on Tuesday. By Wednesday afternoon, they had taken over positions on the front west of Aleppo city and several villages in Idlib Province, as well as moving into the Central Prison in Idlib city.