An agreement to rid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of its chemical weapons has forestalled the prospect of Western military intervention. It has also created a narrow diplomatic window that the world should use to end another horrific war crime: deliberate and deadly attacks on medical personnel.
In Syria, these attacks have practically become daily occurrences. They are one of the most novel and distressing features of the conflict. Hospitals are regularly and repeatedly bombed, doctors disappear and surgeons are assassinated.
A team of United Nations investigators last month found both government and rebel forces guilty of targeting Syrian hospitals. Pro-government forces, the investigators found, do this habitually, denying treatment to injured civilians who come from rebel-held areas. Rebel forces were described as attacking medical facilities they considered “occupied” for the purpose of turning them into “military bases.”
The testimony is chilling: “Victims relay harrowing accounts of the wounded and sick languishing at checkpoints unable to reach medical treatment, coming under renewed attack in hospital and doctors providing impartial aid being arrested and targeted,” the UN Commission of Inquiry report states.
Medical personnel face risks in any war zone, but the threats they face in Syria are especially severe. Under international law, these attacks are war crimes, but have received scant attention.
“The scale of attack on the medical missions is, I think, something quite new,” says Stephen Cornish, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières in Canada. MSF maintains six surgeries and four clinics inside Syria. One of its surgeons working in Aleppo Province was assassinated last month. His death prompted several of his colleagues to flee Syria. The story is part of a larger pattern that has propelled Syria’s health system into crisis. A “breaking point” is how a group of 55 doctors (including three Nobel Prize winners) describe it, in an open letter to the Lancet to protest the continuing violence against their colleagues in Syria.
Vast swaths of the country are now without any form of medical assistance, they say. The signatories cite figures suggesting 469 health workers are currently imprisoned and about 15,000 doctors have fled the country. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, once had 5,000 physicians. Now there are just 36.
“We are appalled by the lack of access to health care for affected civilians, and by the deliberate targeting of medical facilities and personnel,” says the letter. “It is our professional, ethical and moral duty to provide treatment and care to anyone in need.”
Canada and its allies should emphatically condemn the attacks on medical facilities and personnel in Syria.