Russia Fanning the Flames in Syria

After midnight on October 16, Russian forces carried out airstrikes on two hospitals in Syria. Al-Hader Hospital and al-‘Ais Hospital were both put out of service, leaving the southern Aleppo countryside without a functioning medical facility. With terror in their voices, staff from these hospitals gave impassioned testimonies: “There are zero hospitals [left], everyone, zero.” And, “Now there isn’t [a hospital] for civilians. There are mothers and small children here.” Zaidoun al-Zoabi of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations echoed these sentiments in his recent interview on CNN saying, “[They’re] so scared, so scared. I have never seen this in Syria before,” referring to the estimated 35,000 Syrian civilians fleeing the southern Aleppo countryside following Russian and Syrian airstrikes.

Russia’s entrance into the Syrian conflict has made an already grim situation far worse. Initially, the concern among policymakers was that Russia’s engagement would stall peace efforts; and indeed, opposition groups have publicly stated that they will not engage in peace talks as long as Russia continues its attacks. However, the nature of Russia’s military attacks, in step with Bashar al-Assad’s strategies, signals a new level of deterioration in the conflict. Russia’s intervention extends and intensifies Assad’s strategy of systematically targeting civilian infrastructure, providing de facto legitimization of the Syrian regime’s blatant indifference to civilian life and the laws of war.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented seven Russian attacks on medical facilities, with three occurring in the first four days of Russia’s intervention alone. On October 20, we at PHR received reports that Russian fighter jets carried out a double-tap strike in Sarmin, Idilb – a tactic utilized repeatedly by the Assad regime wherein warplanes launch an attack, wait a few minutes until first responders arrive on the scene, and then strike again. The second strike landed 20 meters away from Sarmin Hospital, damaging the hospital and killing two of its staff members.

In what seems to be an attempt at maintaining a façade of adherence to international law, the Russian Defense Ministry continues to boast about the precise nature of their airstrikes: each statement posted on their website goes into detail about the intelligence they gathered and uses phrases including “pinpoint attack,” “precision strike,” and “high accuracy.” Almost every time we receive reports of a new hospital attack, the defense ministry issues a statement claiming that Russian aviation performed a precision airstrike in the exact same area as the hospital. The reasonable way to interpret this is that either Russian forces are actively targeting these hospitals or claims of precision are merely propaganda and the Russians are launching indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas. Either way, these attacks constitute egregious violations of the laws of war.

These attacks also confirm a trend that we have noticed over the past six months: at least in the context of attacks on medical facilities, barrel bombs are being traded in for more sophisticated weaponry. During the first half of 2015, roughly half of the attacks carried out by Syrian forces on hospitals were with barrel bombs. Since July of this year, PHR’s data reveals that Syrian government forces have begun favoring missiles and rockets over barrel bombs. In September, only one of the six attacks on medical facilities that PHR documented was carried out with barrel bombs – the other five were with missiles and rockets – and we have not received a single report of an attack on a hospital with barrel bombs in October.

At first glance, a shift away from indiscriminate weaponry seems positive, especially considering the horrific role that barrel bombs have played in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, stopping the barrel bombs has been central to international efforts to combat the killings of civilians in Syria. However, it is clear that with or without barrel bombs, President Bashar al-Assad is intent on systematically dismantling the opposition’s health care system. Furthermore, as Russia joins in this criminal campaign, it is evident that President Vladimir Putin views the laws of war as little more than vapid suggestions. These atrocious attacks must stop, period. And the discussion has to move beyond barrel bombs.

So far, the message the international community is sending to Syrians is that their humanity is irrelevant and secondary to politics. And I fear that the latest failure by the international community to take any tangible action to protect civilians in this nightmarish war has drowned any lingering hope among Syrians that anybody is listening. This is shameful. We cannot continue to simply bear witness to these heinous crimes. We need to do more. We, as human rights activists, global citizens of conscience, and members of the international community, need to hold Assad and Putin accountable.

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