Wadi Barada siege shows Damascenes’ contempt for countryside
The Wadi Barada region north-west of Damascus is a place dwellers of Syria’s capital know well. In winter, Damascene families would take off every Friday for the mountains beyond the valley to play in the snow and visit its outstanding eateries. In summer, Wadi Barada was an important holiday destination for those wanting to escape the city’s ferocious heat and to draw water, free of charge, from the valley’s numerous public springs.
However, once the well-to-do Damascenes, or shuam as they are known colloquially, left for their city homes, they forgot and cared little for those living in the valley. Once the narrow streets of Wadi Barada had emptied of traffic by 7 o’clock on Friday evenings, once the residents had finished reciting the story of the brave stance taken nearby by Syrians against French forces advancing from Lebanon during the battle of Maysaloun almost a century ago, the plight of the country people was forgotten.
Towns such as Ein al-Fijeh and Wadi Barada, where the water that makes life in Damascus possible flows openly between the streets, have been impoverished for decades. These are communities long forgotten by the regime, at least until protests against the state’s failure to provide sufficient infrastructure and jobs broke out in 2011.
When demonstrators were detained, tortured or killed in the streets by security forces, locals took up arms to defend Wadi Barada. Later, starvation and the loss of their loved ones radicalised their minds, turning them into extremist, violent ideologues. For several years, a tense stalemate followed.
Residents and opposition fighters say regime barrel bombs and shelling in December destroyed the coveted water treatment plant that supports more than 5 million people in Damascus. The counterargument is that terrorists, under threat of attack elsewhere in the valley, provoked the regime, though the truth is sure to be lost amid the swirl of accusations and counterclaims in a war in which notions of truth have long failed to count for much.
But what about the Damascenes who for years enjoyed life in Wadi Barada? Did they not attempt to help their friends who ran the restaurants and those who, for years, kept their holiday villas safe?
How the residents of Damascus view the situation in Wadi Barada highlights a major division in Syrian society that, in part, led to the failure of 2011’s revolt and the brutal, unending war that has followed.
Pummelled by regime propaganda for years, many Damascenes say the valley has been taken over by foreigners, by takfiri terrorists and that no one originally from the area is involved in fighting the regime. The reality is quite different. Many, though not all, rebels and so-called terrorists in the valley are locals, men along with their families now besieged by a stronger enemy but ignored by the urban elites.
What is more, this urban-rural divide crosses sectarian lines: The majority of Damascus’ wealthy business class, the families that control significant levers of power, are Sunni Muslims with little or no affiliation to the regime.
If the residents of Damascus, with their wealth and influence, had stood up against what they knew was wrong — the summary killing and jailing of protesters and students on their streets — chances are we would be looking at a very different country today. Instead, even during the early days of the uprising, the citizens of Damascus stayed home. The city streets were empty as soon as the word of revolt was whispered around the capital.
Despite the close ties once enjoyed by the communities of Wadi Barada and Damascus, the reason urban elites continue to stand by is etched in the history of the broader Levant that lies beyond Europe’s attempts to carve out nation states a century ago. Damascus merchants, traders and families of import all regarded country folk as peasants and outsiders, a mentality that persists today across Syria and that has led the war to a stalemate.
When the war ends, under Syrian President Bashar Assad or someone else, Syrians will have to face up to the fact that theirs is a country of local communities, not the united nation the regime would have many believe.