As violence has escalated in northwest Syria since April 26, Syrian government forces and their Russian allies have reportedly carried out as many as 18 attacks on hospitals and other health care facilities – an enduring tactic which violates international humanitarian laws that protect health facilities and personnel as well as access to medical care. The systematic violations in Syria amount to war crimes, and rise to the level of crimes against humanity.
Of the 18 recent reported attacks, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has verified nine, all of which it has assessed to have been conducted by Syrian government forces and their allies.
PHR has researched, documented, and mapped attacks on medical infrastructure in Syria since the start of the conflict in March 2011. From March 2011 through May 2019, PHR has confirmed that there were at least 566 attacks on 348 separate facilities, as well as at least 890 medical personnel killed. Ninety-one percent of these crimes were committed by the Syrian government and its allies. As PHR’s data demonstrates, the Syrian government and its allies have systematically targeted medical facilities and professionals as part of their strategy of war, criminalizing medical care and denying medical access in the process.
April 2019 saw a new spike in attacks on health care after a lull in early 2019. Starting on April 28, PHR began receiving reports from its partners of attacks on health care facilities concentrated in northern Hama and southern Idlib. By the second week of May, partners reported more and more attacks as the Syrian government and its allies expanded their air and ground campaign in the northwest. Many of those facilities had been attacked by Syrian government or Russian forces previously, some as recently as September 2018. In addition, partners reported that the coordinates of at least three of the impacted facilities had been shared with parties to the conflict through the UN’s deconfliction mechanism, an indication of the possible deliberate nature of the attacks.
PHR coordinates with partners in Syria, including the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, the Syrian American Medical Society, and Syria Relief and Development to corroborate data. The most recent attacks all took place in areas outside of Syrian government control in northern Hama and southern Idlib
“This intensification of attacks by Syrian government forces and their allies delivers a hammer blow to an already severely weakened health system that has been brutally battered by years of systematic targeting,” said Phelim Kine, deputy director of programs and director of research and investigations at Physicians for Human Rights.
“These attacks severely compromise the ability of Syrian medical personnel to deliver care and underscore the urgent need for meaningful international moves to stop this unlawful violence and bring those responsible to account.”
Since it was established in 1986, PHR has documented and advocated to stop the unlawful detention, torture, and killing of medical professionals in dozens of countries. PHR has advocated against the interference with medical care in violation of human rights and international laws and principles that protect the impartial delivery of health care, especially in times of civil unrest or conflict. Among other violations, the organization has reported on systematic attacks on doctors in Bahrain, the jailing of AIDS doctors in Iran, attacks on and persecution of medical workers in Türkiye, and the targeting and destruction of medical facilities and killing of medical personnel in Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
PHR has developed and maintains the following resources documenting the impact of the Syrian conflict on the country’s health care infrastructure:
- Interactive Map: Illegal Attacks on Health Care in Syria
- Findings as of May 2019
- Facts and data: Medical Personnel Targeted in Syria
- Factsheet: The Syrian Conflict: Eight Years of Devastation and Destruction of the Health System
- Case Studies: Specific incidents of attacks on health care facilities and personnel in Syria
- Recent PHR blog posts (blog archive concerning Syria):
- Blog: International Justice Closes in on Syria’s State-backed Killers
- Blog: Syria’s War on Health Workers and Facilities Puts Children at Risk
- Blog: A Brewing Humanitarian Catastrophe as the Battle for Idlib Looms
- Blog: Combating Impunity: How We Risk Normalizing Chemical Weapons Attacks and Other War Crimes in Syria
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.