Multiple hospitals attacked in northern Syria, UN envoy arrives unannounced

The remains of a MSF-supported hospital destroyed by missiles, Feb 15, 2016. (Photo credit: MSF)

The United Nations envoy to Syria made an unannounced visit to Damascus today ahead of planned negotiations for a temporary ceasefire. Just hours ahead of his arrival, missiles struck at least four medical facilities and two schools, killing close to 50 people. The attacks targeted protected civilian locations in Aleppo and Idlib. Both provinces share a border with Turkey, which has taken steps to restrict the movement of refugees into it territory as tens of thousands attempt to flee. For more on today’s hospital attacks, FSRN’s Shannon Young spoke with Syrian-American physician, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a member of the Syrian American Medical Society, whose hospitals were among those targeted.

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Shannon Young: Two of the four hospitals struck today in Syria are run by the Syrian American Medical Society, another is supported by Doctors Without Borders, and the fourth is an OBGYN/neonatal clinic. According to online reports from Syria, at least three of these attacks were carried out by Russian forces. Dr. Sahloul, what other details can you give me about the hospital attacks today?

Dr. Zaher Sahloul: Well, we know that one of the hospitals was, the largest was Azaz Hospital. Azaz is a city in the north of Syria, at the Turkish border. And that hospital was destroyed. There were scores of people who were killed and injured, among them were patients and nurses and doctors, who were still trying to get out. The last tally of the victims. And this hospital was destroyed by what is described as a missile that was, that came from the Mediterranean. So, we’re not sure about the exact details, but it looks like the Russians.

The other hospital is Doctor’s Without Borders hospital in the city of Ma’arat Al Numan in Idlib. And that hospital was completely destroyed. And there were also victims of nurses and patients and medical staff.

The third hospital was the National Hospital in Ma’arat Al Numan. This is the hospital that was supported by SAMS. And we have, unfortunately, two nurses who were in training and both of them were killed. One of them was 17-years-old. And we’re still trying to get the last hospital’s tallies, and their age, and so forth.

And then, there was also a poly clinic, a multi-specialty clinic in a city called Abo Althohour, in Idlib, which is also run by SAMS. So, it looks like, for some reason, there’s a systemic, systematic attack on hospitals and clinics, and many victims among patients and medical staff. And it’s unfortunate because this area has been bombarded in the last few days, few weeks, and by Russians jets and there’s a huge displacement of population. Now with the destruction of hospitals, you will expect to have more displacement and more chaos.

SY: As you mention, the hospital bombings come amid a broader offensive by Syrian government forces in northern areas near the border with Turkey that has displaced tens of thousands of people in the last two weeks. What more can you tell me about the current situation there beyond the hospital bombings?

ZS: Every time we think that the situation in Syria got to the bottom, or gotten the worst, you know, we hit more crises and it gets even worse. Right now we have this area in Syria, north of the city of Aleppo. The city of Aleppo is the largest city in Syria. It’s divided between the government and the rebels; the east side of Aleppo city is controlled by the rebels. There are about 350 thousand people. Right now it looks like the offensive from the regime, and supported by Russia and the Iranian militia, they’re trying to cut Aleppo from the Turkish border. There’s only one road that is leading to Aleppo right now, which is bombarded every day.

One of our members, Dr. Azrak, who’s been in Aleppo today, an American physician, he’s an eye specialist seeing patients in some of the hospitals, described to me the situation, that he cannot leave his hospital. His hospital is underground for protection, and he’s trying to get out of the city to come back to the United States and he’s not sure that he will make it alive because the road to Turkey is bombarded all the time by Russian air strikes. And many of the civilians in the city of Aleppo are trapped, about 50 thousand of them have been displaced and headed to the Turkish border. But, they’re not allowed into Turkey.

Turkey, it looks like, has closed the border right now and there’s probably tens of thousands of civilians from north of Aleppo regions, who are right now in active displacement. Many of them have been displaced like this before. With this expected siege of the city of Aleppo, I think that will be a catastrophe.

I think what we’re witnessing right now in Syria, especially in Aleppo and also in Idlib, is the worst of this crisis. Aleppo may turn out to be another Srebrenica unless the international community intervenes. And intervention here, we don’t mean by issuing statements and condemnations, but we would like to keep the city of Aleppo alive without siege, because you have 400 thousand people who’d be trapped there. And many of them would die if this siege continues.

SY: Just last week, there was a meeting in Munich of international powers in which countries like Russia and the U.S. agreed to concrete goals, like a ceasefire agreement by this week. But if Russia is behind the attacks today on hospitals and schools, what are the real prospects for peace?

ZS: There is no prospect of peace. I don’t think that anyone, including Secretary Kerry, believes that this is going to happen. The Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, himself, said that the prospects of a cessation of hostilities, as he mentioned, is less than 50 percent. Russia said that it has the right to bomb any place in Syria. And what they are saying, they are not admitting that they’re bombing hospitals and schools, they say that they’re bombing terrorists. So, to them, any area in Syria, whether it’s a school or food market or hospital, is something that is a target. They don’t admit that they are killing children, and that has been documented in multiple reports by the Human Rights Organization, by MSF, by SAMS.

No one in Syria believes cessation in hostilities. It’s ironic, you know, that our Secretary of State bragged that there will be a cessation of hostilities in one week. So why would you give the Russians another week to bomb the population, another week for the regime to complete its offensive and encircle the city of Aleppo. To me, this is – you know, I’m a physician – but to me this is really, it’s very unacceptable, and it’s really cruel that the international community has not had the will to stop what’s happening in Syria.

SY: What would be a clear show of will on the part of the international community to intervene in a meaningful way if the recent talks by so-called stakeholders resulted no prospects for peace?

ZS: I mean, everyone would like to have a political transition and bring the stakeholders to the table, but in order to do that, the first thing that we have to make sure is that we protect the civilians and we do not end up with a Syria that is empty of its population. We’re talking about 4.2 or 4.3 [million] refugees right now.

If the civilians of Aleppo and Idlib are displaced, which looks like this is the aim of the Russian offensive and of Russian air strikes. If you destroy a hospital in a city, the only hospital in the city, you know that the people in the city will leave with their children. And so, with this further displacement, I don’t think that you have people in Syria to protect. What we are calling on our administration, and in international community over the last couple of years, is to have a protection, or protected areas, or safe zones, that NGOs are allowed to work, that hospitals and schools are protected, that civilians can have, can breath and focus on their future and so forth. This is not happening.

It’s a very simple thing; it has been done in Bosnia, it has been done in Kosovo, it has been done in Iraq. It protects the population from the mayhem that is falling on them from the sky. And we’d like the road from Turkey to Aleppo to stay open as a humanitarian corridor for people so they don’t starve to death. And all of these things are doable, it has been done in previous crises, but our administration, unfortunately right now, does not have the will to protect civilians in Syria. That’s what I believe, and that’s what my colleagues believe, because of what’s going on right now.

SY: Let’s back up a bit and talk about the Syrian American Medical Society, can you briefly describe the organization’s mission, work and history?

ZS: Yes, we represent American health care professionals. There are about 22 chapters in the United States that represent Syrian doctors and nurses. By the way, one percent of all American doctors are of Syrian origin, so about 10,000 Syrian doctors in the United States who are practicing every day and healing millions of American patients. We’re a 15-year-old organization, but since the beginning of the crisis we’ve focused on providing medical relief, sending medical missions, to Syria and the neighboring countries, Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey. We started to send medical missions to the Greek islands, Lesbos islands to help the refugees.

And, of course, we have many programs and operations inside Syria; we have about 110 hospitals, mobile clinics, and ICU emergency rooms, and birth centers that we operate, we support physicians and nurses by providing them with training, telemedicine and salaries, even. We send diesel fuel to hospitals because there’s no electricity in many of these areas. And of course we advocate on their behalf at the U.N. and the United States. So, last year we were able to benefit 2.6 million patients inside Syria and the neighboring countries, most of them are displaced and refugees, by our programs. We focus on health care because we believe that this is something that is really lacking in Syria right now, especially in areas that are bombarded by the Syrian regime, by the Russians and Iranian militias.

SY: You dedicate time and energy to humanitarian work in Syria, but you also practice in the United States. How do your US colleagues react to the repeated targeting of Syria’s healthcare infrastructure?

ZS: There’s a lot of sympathy. Many of the doctors who are joining us in medical missions to Al Zaatari camp in Jordan or Lebanon are not of Syrian origin. We just had a medical mission to Jordan last month and we had 70 nurses and doctors and medical students. One-third of them are not of Syrian origin.

There’s a lot of sympathy in the medical associations. The American Thoracic Society, which I belong to, has run an article about the impact of the war on health care in Syria. The Public Health Association yesterday featured the impact of Syria on health care in the region. The American College of Cardiology has done the same thing. So there’s a lot of support and solidarity in the medical community that we are seeing.

We need more voices in the medical health community to demand that what’s happening right now in Syria stops. Doctors and nurses have a moral voice and they have to use it in order to stop the atrocities in Syria and other areas that are in conflict. Especially targeting doctors and nurses and patients, this is really unacceptable, this is a war crime. And we’re seeing war crimes every time in Syria by targeting these hospitals and clinics and schools and this should not be the norm. What’s happening in Syria is the new normal, where you have doctors and nurses killed just because they are saving lives. And it looks like the international community is silent on these crimes and that should not be acceptable.

Geneva Convention, 150 years ago, said that doctors and nurses have the right and the duty to take care of patients in the war zones and they should not be targeted. And, you know, physicians should not be bombed, hospitals should not be bombed, but unfortunately right now, the international community has accepted this as a new normal in Syria.

SY: Dr. Sahloul, anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?

ZS: I think this is very important for your audience to understand that what’s happening in Syria maybe is not what the media is covering. The media tends to focus on what ISIS is doing and so forth. But, what’s happening in Syria is really affecting the civilians, like me and you, it’s affecting doctors and children who cannot go to school, children who are bombed while they are in hospitals. And, because of the situation in Syria, not many media outlets are focusing on this, and when it does, it’s usually very quick, a news brief and so forth. I think the public has to understand the situation in Syria, this is the worst humanitarian crisis in our lifetime. This is affecting us here in the United States because we have to deal with the refugees, we have to deal with the extremism that is happening in Syria out of this chaos, and we have to do everything else to pressure our policy makers to stop the atrocities in Syria.


Dr. Zaher Sahloul is a Syrian-American Physician and a senior adviser of the Syrian American Medical Society. He spoke with FSRN by phone from Chicago.

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