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Syria Weekly: Assad calls a truce, but Idlib's healthcare is ravaged by months of bombing Open in fullscreen

Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Assad calls a truce, but Idlib's healthcare is ravaged by months of bombing

Hundreds of children have been killed and injured in the Russian bombing campaign [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 August, 2019

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Months of bombing have left healthcare in opposition areas of Syria in dire condition.
After months of relentless bombing and a gruelling ground assault on Idlib the Syrian regime announced on Thursday evening a ceasefire covering the northwestern opposition province, on condition that rebel militias withdraw from a demilitarised zone surrounding the area.

The truce came amid mounting international pressure on the regime and its ally Russia over the soaring number of civilian deaths caused by the joint offensive on Idlib, which began in April. As another wave of intense air raids was unleashed on opposition areas in northwest Syria last week, the UN voiced concerns about the bloody assault, which has killed around 800 civilians over the past three months, including many women and children.

The UN also made a rare attribution of blame for the killings, singling out Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russia for attacks on humanitarian facilities, which has included the destruction or severe damage of 23 healthcare facilities.

Ten out of the 15 Security Council members voted to establish an inquiry into the bombings of vital civilian infrastructure. UN Secretary-General Antonia Guterres shot down the predictable complaints from Moscow's ambassador about the probe.

"I fully respect the right of the Russian Federation to disagree with me, as I also respect the position of 10 other members of the Security Council that had the opposite opinion," he said.

Truce

Whether due to mounting international pressure or an opportunity for Russia and the regime to pause their disastrous failed ground offensive, there are hopes that Damascus' announcement of a ceasefire will lead to a halt on the bloody air assault on Idlib - home to 3 million people which has seen over 400,000 uprooted as a result of the bombing. But the announcement has been largely treated with scepticism from most Idlib residents who have seen promises by the regime of ceasefires broken time-and-time again.

Idlib remains perched on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, due to the widespread destruction of medical facilities and challenges for aid workers since the takeover of the province by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Healthcare workers are doing what they can to improve the situation for Syrians with few resources and immense instability caused by the daily bombing.

"We have good communication with Turkish authorities so we have a cross-border list for our employees and able to cross the border at any time," one doctor told The New Arab

Conditions

There have been a few successes with the planned expansion of the healthcare system in the Turkish-Free Syrian Army administered Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch regions of northern Syria. This will mean that more sick and injured will be able to receive adequate treatment inside Syria.

Yet the regime and Russian assault has taken its toll on Idlib and caused some immense challenges for healthcare workers. First there is the problem of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians, newly displaced by the regime bombardments.

In addition to material damage, huge numbers of medical staff have been killed or forced to join the waves of refugees seeking safety in other parts of Syria during the assault.

Then there is the widespread destruction of medical facilities in opposition areas. Twenty-nine healthcare facilities were destroyed in May alone, despite their coordinates being shared with the UN, the doctor said.

SRD lost seven facilities during this wave of bombing including an underground, fortified medical facility that was funded by the UNOCHA and is believed to have been destroyed by a specialised bunker-busting weapon.

"The hospital was far from any other building and the frontlines… it was also under the deconflict mechanism," the medic said.

Read also: Terror and destruction for civilians as Russian airstrikes hit Idlib

The healthcare community have little doubt there is a deliberate tactic by the regime to make the anti-Assad territories uninhabitable.

"There has been a pattern during the war. It started with the targeting of health facilities, schools, markets and after that [Russia and the regime] started bombing every single building in the area. People know this strategy very well and have started to escape these areas in big waves," the doctor said.

Hopes and fears

Such conditions have made it difficult for healthcare workers to operate, although the medical worker said they are doing what they can.

"No capacity building could be done due to poor funding and a paucity of medical staff. Although the network we are managing did a good job in distributing services and decreasing the load on some facilities, it is still not nearly enough."

He said that the intense bombing of northern Hama means that there is effectively no healthcare available in the area, besides a few mobile clinics.

The situation is more tolerable in Idlib, where there are still some larger hospitals and an acceptable number of medical staff on hand, but the conditions are very far below international standards.

"Two major threats are decreased funding and continuous attacks. The only thing that can change the situation is an end to the fighting, which is not a choice at the moment due to the presence of the Assad regime and its allies. All other solutions are palliative."

While the ceasefire appears to be holding for now, medical workers are scrambling to provide healthcare to the people of Idlib, many who are without homes. Meanwhile, the people of Idlib have little hope that the truce will continue and await another cycle of death and destruction from regime bombing.


Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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