BEIRUT

Middle East

Water war takes its toll on Aleppo

A boy fills buckets with water sourced from underground wells in Aleppo May 10, 2014. (REUTERS/Aref Haj Youssef)

BEIRUT: Pro- and anti-Assad Aleppo residents, as well as rights groups, have slammed what they call the collective punishment of civilians by suspending services and utilities, as a water crisis there entered its 12th day.

While water began return to some areas in Aleppo Tuesday, large swathes of both eastern, mainly rebel-held areas and western, government-controlled parts of the city remained dry Thursday, affecting an estimated 1 million people.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry told the U.N. Wednesday that rebels were using “collective punishment” against civilian populations by targeting water supplies, something it has been accused of itself through blockades of rebel areas and the indiscriminate use of “barrel bombs” on civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo.

Those tactics prompted Islamist rebel groups to cut electricity to regime-held neighborhoods in the city in April in order to pressure the regime to ease its barrel campaign.

Under a deal with the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, the local Shariah Committee and the Syrian government, the rebels agreed to restore power if the regime ceased using barrel bombs on rebel-controlled areas, threatening to cut the water supply lines to regime-held neighborhoods if they failed to do so.

The deal collapsed, and the barrel bombs continued to fall.

Rebel factions, meanwhile, traded blame over the water cut, which affected large areas of their own opposition support base, as civilian anger and misery mounted in the city.

A spokesman for the Islamic Front coalition involved in the negotiations over electricity accused the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an Al-Qaeda splinter group, of cutting the water supply at the Khafsah station outside Aleppo.

“The water supply was cut from the ISIS-dominated area,” the spokesman said. “The Islamic Front protects civilians.”

Others said the Nusra Front, which controls the main Suleiman al-Halabi station, botched an attempt to deprive regime-held areas of water and ended up affecting the whole city.

The Islamic Front spokesman blamed the regime’s bombing campaign for damaging water pumps and the nearby Sakhour electricity plant, which powers the Suleiman al-Halabi station. He said water was partially restored when a deal was reached with the government, the Red Crescent and the local Shariah Committee to bring fuel to the electricity plant.

“So when the electricity plant started to function again, the water station of Suleiman al-Halabi functioned as well,” the spokesman said, speaking via Skype.

The civilians on the ground were less discerning.

With bottled water prices soaring to over 100 pounds a bottle due to high demand, residents have resorted to drinking from wells and drains, which has led to illness.

One 66-year-old resident, an opposition supporter who lives near the front lines bordering the Old City, told The Daily Star that he had not showered for 12 days and questioned the strategy of starving civilians of resources.

“I have no idea about the difference between the rebel groups; who is Nusra and who is ISIS or who is FSA [Free Syrian Army]? No one knows who did it, and I blame everyone,” he said, requesting anonymity for fear of recriminations.

“One side is putting pressure on the other and the other is responding. ... Maybe it was the rebels, but I find it strange, because why would they do that? Why would they punish us in the rebel areas when we support them?”

A university student in his 20s, a regime supporter residing in government-held western Aleppo, blamed “armed groups” for the shortage, adding that random mortar fire by rebels in regime-held neighborhoods was terrifying the community.

“People here are disgusted at the situation in general,” he said. “Like the barrel bombs that the regime is using against the rebels, they are using mortars and gas cylinders to shell the regime-held areas.”

“Where are our human rights?”

Another former Aleppo resident, Fadi, living in the U.S. but with family in Syria, said using civilians to pressure leadership on either side produced only greater polarization.

“They are targeting civilians to put pressure on the regime side, but it doesn’t work. They’re just convinced now that the rebels are trying to kill them. People hate both sides now.”

The Islamic Front spokesman denied the campaigns were taking a toll on the rebels’ image.

“Civilians are now distinguishing between the groups,” he said.

“The Islamic Front has several activities to support the civilians, like establishing bakeries, fixing and running schools, paving the roads and managing the water supply.”

“People will support those who help them and understand their pain and suffering.”

He said the water campaign was not a mistake.

“The aim of this action was protecting civilians.”

Nadim Houry, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch in Beirut, said while it remained unclear exactly who cut the water supply and why, the act could amount to a war crime because it “intentionally targets civilians.”

“This is an extension of siege politics and strategy that has been applied by both sides,” he said.

“Starving people, cutting off water supplies, cutting off electricity ... all make civilians suffer as a way to pressure the other warring party. It is simply not an acceptable negotiating tactic.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 16, 2014, on page 8.

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