(Repeats to fix story slug with no changes to headline or
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN Jan 5 The Syrian army and its allies
pressed ahead on Friday with a two-week-long offensive to seize
a strategic valley where a key spring provides supplies to four
million people in the capital, Damascus, residents and rebels
Aerial bombing and shelling from the army as well as
Hezbollah fighters stationed in the mountains that overlook the
valley on the northwestern edge of the capital had intensified
in the last forty-eight hours, they said.
Scores of jets pounded the area around the Ain al-Fija
springs and the villages of Baseimah, Kafr Zayt and al
Husseineh, which form part of a cluster of ten villages
controlled by rebels in the valley that lies at the northwestern
edge of the capital.
The Syrian army, aided by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed
Lebanese Shi'ite group, has so far been unsuccessful in making
any significant advance in the valley since they launched the
drive to capture the strategic area and accused rebels of
polluting the springs with diesel.
The rebel fighters there rejected a government offer to
leave the area for the rebel-held province of Idlib in northern
Syria. Similar deals have led rebels to yield swathes of
territory, including Aleppo.
Area residents say the rugged nature of the terrain gives
the rebels, drawn from both moderate and Islamist factions, a
natural advantage to pin down any advancing troops.
"They cannot advance easily; even if the rebels are
outnumbered they can easily strike any advancing troops from the
three main entrances into the encircled valley," said Abu
Mohammad al Qalamoni, a rebel fighter in contact with comrades
inside the valley.
The military offensive has strained a ceasefire agreement
brokered by Russia and Turkey aimed at bringing about Syrian
peace talks in Kazakhstan.
The opposition has warned that unless the Syrian army halts
its attacks it would consider any truce "null and void". They
have also suspended any discussion on participating in the
forthcoming peace talks unless Russia puts pressure on the
government and its Tehran-backed allies to abort the offensive.
Wadi Barada lies on a road from Damascus to the Lebanese
border that is a key supply line for Hezbollah, which is heavily
involved in fighting alongside the Syrian army.
The rupture of water supplies from the springs has caused
severe shortages after the pumping station of Ain al Fija that
supplied around 70 percent of the capital's water needs was
Prices of bottled water and trucked water supplied by
private traders to residential homes has tripled, residents of
the sprawling capital say, with a black market now thriving.
The government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad has also
brought in supplies from other provinces by tanker to cover some
of the shortfall in the capital and pumped extra water from
The army says it is fighting radical Islamists in the area,
a claim denied by local fighters. A military media unit run by
Hezbollah said on Thursday at least 11 al Qaeda-linked fighters
were either killed or wounded when they were targeted by
rockets, but those figures could not be independently confirmed.
The civilian population in the valley is estimated by the
United Nations to number around 45,000, but civic groups say the
total is double that with their plight worsening daily under
heavy shelling and shortages of food and medicine.
Dozens of homes have been hit by the bombing campaign.
Only 1,200 families have so far left to a government-run
shelter in the nearby town of Rawda, the U.N. said.
"We hope in a few days water will return back to the capital
after the army takes back Ain al Fija. The army is advancing and
... we expect good news," Alaa Munir Ibrahim, a governor in the
Damascus suburbs, told state media.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, editing by G Crosse)