Having mentored several generations of residents in internal medicine, I believe the vast majority of us became medical professionals for the right reason—we wanted to follow Hippocrates’ admonition “to cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.” This choice does not make the members of our profession perfect. Doctors were on trial at Nuremberg, have aided genocide in Armenia, the Balkans, and Rwanda, and were complicit in torture in Chile and South Africa. But it does make us perfectly aware of the importance of medical professionals in times of armed conflict, when the sick and wounded need our skills and care more than ever.
As a person deeply committed to human rights, I deplore the violence that grips Syria. I mourn the thousands who have died. Sadly, recent efforts to enact a cease fire have been insufficient to stop the carnage.
But as a doctor, I must also specifically address the deliberate attacks waged by government forces on medical professionals and patients and the irony that Dr. Assad—as President Bashar was called when his profession was ophthalmology, not politics—took an oath when he became a physician to “do no harm.”
With some 10,000 dead, it is clear that Dr. Assad is more than willing to do harm on a massive scale. And to further oppress people, he is also attacking doctors, patients, and hospitals precisely because he understands the vital role of healers in holding a community together during times of armed conflict.
PHR has received evidence that government forces regularly deny wounded civilians impartial medical treatment; they invade, attack, and misuse hospitals; they attack and impede medical transport; and they detain and torture medical professionals for treating wounded civilians.
We must not consider these attacks mere “collateral damage,” itself a disingenuous term that obscures the pain and suffering inflicted on helpless civilians. These are not cases where a hospital is shelled by accident, an ambulance blown up by a forgotten landmine, or a nurse among those caught in a firefight.
Syrian forces are deliberately and systematically targeting healers, hospitals, and patients. The cumulative effect of such attacks is to further terrorize communities that have been shelled by tanks and heavy artillery and attacked by roving bands of militia. Every doctor beaten into silence is one less voice to share evidence of torture. For every health professional who is killed or intimidated into inaction, the sick and wounded will suffer and die.
I have never met Dr. Assad. But at one point in his medical training, he must have had the experience that I remember so well. He must have sat down with his first patient and started the daunting and humbling task of learning how to use his skills to heal. If Dr. Assad cannot remember that moment, then the medical community must live up to its ethical duty and speak out to remind him. As Chair of the Board for Physicians for Human Rights, along with Dr. James L. Madara, CEO and Executive Vice President of the American Medical Association, and Dr. Jose Gomes do Amaral, President of the World Medical Association, I sent a letter to Dr. Assad, urging him to stop his attacks.
The killing must stop so the healing can begin. Both sides of the conflict must immediately abide by all relevant international laws; they must cease all attacks on civilians, and take immediate steps to abide by the terms of the ceasefire agreement. The sick and wounded must be provided the help they need, and medical professionals must be free to do their job without interferences.