Three medical workers in Syria were injured in June when a bomb was deliberately dropped on their hospital, destroying its intensive care unit. Soon after, another hospital became a target – government forces raided the facility, destroyed the equipment, and harassed medical staff solely for doing their job of treating the wounded. Ambulance drivers delivering medical supplies have also been attacked. Last year, government officials searched one ambulance and took the driver to a detention facility. Two weeks later, his body turned up with injuries indicating that he had been tortured.
These are just some of the disturbing examples that have emerged from a recent UN report highlighting the systematic assault on medical providers, facilities, and patients in Syria. It gives compelling evidence about how medical care is being used as a weapon of war, and identifies the targeting of the medical profession as “one of the most alarming features of the Syrian conflict.”
This month, the UN inspections team confirmed the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the world was right to decry the inhumanity of the attack. But there are other lines that cannot be crossed during times of war – lines that limit the barbarity of conflict by protecting civilians. When Syria bombs its hospitals, attacks medical providers, and tortures patients seeking medical care, it crosses these lines. If government forces intentionally target medical facilities, people become afraid to seek care.
As we note with horror that more than 100,000 lives have already been lost in the Syrian conflict, we must recognize with equal horror the direct consequences of attacks on medical care. When doctors are targeted for adhering to their ethical responsibilities in caring for the wounded, and hospitals are repeatedly targeted by bombs, the war’s gruesome consequences multiply. Mortality rates among the sick and wounded increase, caregivers cannot help the most vulnerable, and places of healing become yet another front of the battlefield.
Attacks against medical professionals in Syria have forced many health workers to leave their jobs at a time when they are needed most, which has had devastating consequences for the country’s entire public health system. A study from June found that 70 percent of Syria’s medical professionals had already left the country. A report released in March found that only 36 doctors continue to practice in Aleppo, while some 5,000 doctors had previously been working in the city before the conflict began. Meanwhile, the number of people requiring medical care is increasing exponentially.
The United Nations has called upon the world to address this targeted attack on medical care in Syria. The UN report has pointed out that government forces have killed patients and their medical providers by intentionally targeting hospitals, which have at times also been used by government forces as military facilities. The Syrian government has also passed laws that effectively criminalize providing medical aid to the opposition, meaning doctors risk their lives each time they dare to provide unbiased care to those in need. Responding to this reality, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has highlighted before the UN General Assembly the “unconscionable targeting of medical facilities and personnel” in Syria. Though the government assault on medical care is disturbing in its reach, anti-government armed groups have also committed some of these violations.
We must help put an end to these attacks. All sides of the Syrian conflict must respect the laws of war, which protect the sick and wounded in times of armed conflict and oblige doctors to provide them with neutral and ethical care. The United States and international community should address these war crimes in Syria negotiations. Our common humanity calls on us to decry these attacks on the vulnerable and on those who help heal them.