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Adham Sahloul

Syria's Dr Bashar al-Assad has turned medicine into warfare

Since last Friday, there have been 20 attacks on medical facilities across northern Syria [Andalou]

Date of publication: 21 November, 2016

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Comment: Last Friday, the Aleppo Health Directorate announced that all of Aleppo's hospitals have been partially or fully damaged, and that they have suspended operations, writes Adham Sahloul

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad is a doctor with a medical degree from the University of Damascus, who completed his studies in ophthalmology in London. This fine detail is oft-forgotten amid Syria coverage, but for those us in the humanitarian community, it bears repeating.

Syria's current autocrat was forced to abandon medicine when his older brother Bassel was killed in a car accident in 1994. Bashar was the awkward, quiet one; I know this because my father was his classmate in medical school.

Bashar did not have the charisma and potential that had garnered Bassel, groomed at a young age to succeed his father Hafez, national adoration. After Hafez's passing in 2000, the Syrian Baath regime and global community questioned Bashar's stripes as a leader. The world banked on his time in London as a forecast for reform in Syria; Syria would democratise and open up to the world, or so we hoped.

With over a quarter of a million killed - the vast majority at his hands - millions of refugees, and the fabric of Syria's historic and once vibrant society torn to shreds, we know that Bashar failed in every regard as Syria's leader. But let us not forget that he also failed as a doctor, as someone who swore the Hippocratic oath - to do no harm, to be a healer.

The blood that spills in operation rooms in makeshift hospitals getting bombed by his and Vladimir Putin's warplanes is on Dr. Bashar al-Assad's hands. He has targeted hospitals across opposition-held parts of Syria - from Aleppo and Idlib to Homs and Daraya - with the intent of terrorising civilians, making it literally and psychologically unbearable to not leave their homes.

Bashar was the awkward, quiet one; I know this because my father was his classmate in medical school

By bastardising the entire UN humanitarian response in Syria, suppressing the entry of medicine and medical supplies into areas besieged by his forces and allies such as Hezbollah - literally removing medicine from UN aid convoys - he has forced the surrender of besieged populations across Syria. These are the so-called "reconciliations" he fed to western journalists that he hosted in Damascus last month.

Since last Friday, there have been 20 attacks on medical facilities across northern Syria. In the last 144 days, there have been 143 attacks on medical facilities and personnel, all perpetrated by Syrian or Russian warplanes. More than a third of these occurred in besieged East Aleppo.

These past five months have been the bloodiest for medics in Syria since the start of Assad's war against his people. The hospitals face internationally-outlawed cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and now bunker buster munitions that have the capacity to penetrate any and all fortifications that medical NGOs in Syria have attempted.

No amount of reporting has stopped the attacks; conversely, no codenames, suppression of information, or other security measures have prevented the Syrian and Russian governments from knowing exactly where the hospitals are.

There are clear violations of international humanitarian law, with deliberate, astoundingly salient motives of forced displacement and terror

The SAMS-supported underground trauma hospital in east Aleppo, codenamed "M10", for instance, was bombed four times to destruction within 10 days at the end of September, despite the doctors there having announced its suspension of services, despite any sort of public advocacy or volume of western foreign correspondents reporting on the matter.

The same is happening in east Aleppo this week, with the Independent Doctors Association (IDA) reporting its Children's Hospital having been bombed twice in the past week.

We have been holding our breath for the Russian offensive in Aleppo that aims to bring about the surrender of armed opposition groups and help Assad cleave more of northern Syria into his control. It has begun, and at least 100 civilians have been killed this week.

With five hospitals and 30 doctors remaining for East Aleppo's 300,000 inhabitants before the latest offensive, we wondered how many more hospital targetings, staff injuries, or exhaustion of resources it would take for Aleppo's medical staff to suspend their services. It took but one week.

Last Friday, the Aleppo Health Directorate announced that all of Aleppo's hospitals have been partially or fully damaged, and that they have suspended operations. This will be a precursor to what comes next.

Two months ago, Daraya's inhabitants surrendered when the siege of four years grew so unbearable and their last hospital was bombed to hell. They were forcibly displaced to Idlib, an aim of the Syrian government's highly sectarian strategy of population redistribution.

They were forcibly displaced to Idlib, an aim of the Syrian government's highly sectarian strategy of population redistribution

The same will happen to Aleppo, only on a larger scale, and they will continue to be exposed to the constant bombardment across the northern countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. With medical services hanging on a thread and a harsh winter with no food, fuel, or medicine approaching, we can only fear the worst.

There are clear violations of international humanitarian law, with deliberate, astoundingly salient motives of forced displacement and terror. Advocates for civilian protection in Syria have squeezed every ounce of access to the world's leaders to inspire action.

Some of the most prominent international humanitarian NGOs have yet to call for civilian protection or for instant accountability to perpetrators of attacks on hospitals. Instead they are relying on the violently neutral adage that this is beyond the humanitarian scope, that any sort of international military action is too complicated.

If only those NGO figureheads would listen to the perspectives of their own staff implementing their programs on the ground in Syria or its bordering countries, who know very well that this brand of humanitarianism is bankrupt, and Syria is as complicated as you want it to be.

Assad is using medicine as warfare, and we keep sending bandages hoping for better results.

 

Adham Sahloul is an advocacy officer at the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), based in Gaziantep, Turkey. He has written previously about Syria for Lawfare, Middle East Eye, The New Arab, and PRI’s The World.

Follow him on Twitter: @adhamsahloul


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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