The impact of the Syrian conflict on medical personnel and facilities

Children's hospital destroyed after air strikes in Idlib, Syria Children's hospital destroyed after air strikes in Idlib, Syria © Ibrahim Hatip/Anadolu Agency

This article is a brief presentation of the report of The Syrian Network for Human Rights on the attacks against medical staff and facilities in Syria

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) is a non-governmental organization (NGO), founded in 2011, which documents and reports the Syrian conflict-related death toll to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In its last report, released on 17September 2020, the NGO documented the attacks targeting medical personnel and facilities.

The report, which covers the period March 2011 to September 2020, is based on the daily monitoring of news, interviews with eyewitnesses and survivors, visits of SNHR’s team to locations where incidents occurred and videos posted online by activists.

Under international humanitarian law, civilian objects such as medical facilities with no military installations or equipment nearby are protected from military attacks. They can only  lose their “civilian status” when they are used for military purposes. However, once the facility is no longer used for any military reason, the protected status resumes. The report shows evidence of deliberate and systematic targeting of the medical sector strategy since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. The forces of the Syrian have targeted public and private medical centres with helicopters, warplanes and by ground operations. Also the Russian air force has bombed medical facilities in areas outside the control of the Syrian regime. According to the report, Syrian forces and their Russian and Iranian allies perpetrated multiple violations against the medical sector.

Overall, the SNHR recorded 857 victimes among medical personnels, including 87 who died of torture. At the hands of the Syrian regime’s forces (army, security and local militia), 652 civilians died, including 84 of torture; Russian forces are responsible for the deaths of 69 medical personnel. The report also recorded the number of medical staff, which have forcibly disappeared or are still arbitrarily detained since March 2011 by the forces of the Syrian regime (3327), the Islamic State (5), the Syrian Democratic Forces (13), the Syrian National army (4), and the Hay’at Tahrir al  Sham group (4).

Since March 2011, 862 attacks against medical facilities (field hospitals, private hospitals and mobile medical units) occurred. On many occasions, the targeting of medical facilities was carried out by regime intelligence services through surveillance operations aimed at  locating facilities. Furthermore, the report highlights the use of the so-called double-tap strike tactic by Russian and Syrian forces. This tactic is based on “re-bombing the same targeted site with a time difference sufficient for concerned local people and paramedics to gather the location, in order to inflict the greatest possible human and material losses''. As a result of this widespread violence, numerous medical centres and hospitals have been partially or totally damaged affecting hundreds of sick and injured civilians. According to SNHR, the most affected facilities were located in cities and villages under the control of the IS and the Armed Opposition. So in 2013 the forces of the Syrian s bombed the al Walid Hospital in Homs causing the deaths of four nurses and massive destruction to the building. In 2014, an attack the regime’s warplanes carried out against the Modern Medicine Hospital in al Mayadeen city necessitated  the total closure of the facility due to the massive damage to the building and the medical equipment. In early 2020, an attack targeted the al Kenanah Hospital and the neighbouring al Fardous Hospital in Aleppo’s western suburbs, which caused injuries to civilians and material damage.

Despite the efforts of the United Nations and its humanitarian partners to protect health care facilities in Syria through a  de-conflict mechanism, the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance continued to deliberately bomb private and public hospitals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the disintegration of health care facilities has been more prevalent and exposed Syrian people to the threat of the virus. The SNHR thus urges the United Nations Security Council to pass  a resolution allowing military intervention to protect civilians and medical facilities and to impose sanctions against Syria, Russia and Iran for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also encourages this UN body to exercise pressure on the Syrian regime to release 3327 medical personnel due to  the pandemic.



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Author: Silvia Luminati

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