The Russian Federation’s unconditional support for the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad hit a new low on Monday, September 16. That afternoon, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, held a press conference to decry what he declared a sinister “new dimension of warfare” in the Syrian conflict: “disinformation.”
But Nebenzia didn’t spend the hour-long press conference discussing the Assad government’s strategy of denial of war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Syrian forces and their allies since the conflict began in 2011. And there wasn’t a whisper about Russia’s own use of “theatricality and deception” to cast doubt on war crimes perpetrated in Syria.
Instead, Nebenzia inveighed again allegations of Syrian and Russian forces’ apparently deliberate attacks on health care facilities in Idlib and northwestern Syria since April 2019. Those allegations, according to Nebenzia, constitute a groundless smear campaign by what he described as “unidentified sources” dedicated only to slowing the military offensive by Syrian and Russian military forces in northwestern Syria. Nebenzia is an old hand at this strategy of craven denial in the face of inconvertible facts. Last year, he attempted to rebut well-documented war crimes in the battle for the Damascus suburb of Ghouta as “massive coordinated psychosis,” which was “spread by global media outlets.”
Nebenzia’s screed was overwhelmingly fact-free and an insult to the hundreds of Syrian civilians – patients, health care workers, and bystanders – killed in attacks on health care infrastructure in Syria over the past eight years. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented 583 such attacks on at least 350 separate facilities from March 2011 through August 2019, more than ninety percent of them by Syrian and Russian forces.
The Syrian military offensive on Idlib since April, backed by Russian military forces, has inflicted 23 PHR-verified attacks on health care facilities in that region; PHR is in the process of verifying more than two dozen other reported attacks that have occurred there during the same time period. Disturbingly, those facilities were targeted by Syrian and Russian military forces despite the fact that their locational coordinates had been shared with all combatants as part of a UN-brokered “deconfliction” mechanism designed to prevent such attacks.
Nebenzia sought to challenge the veracity of corroborated reports of attacks on health care facilities in northwestern Syria by Syrian and Russian forces. The “evidence” he marshalled in that effort was embarrassingly amateurish: a PowerPoint presentation of random maps that questioned the locational coordinates of declared health care facilities. A photograph of a bombed-out ambulance that he stated – without any visible evidence – had actually been a gun emplacement. And a photograph of a room that could have been taken anywhere in the world that Nebenzia said was of the interior of a hospital that had been falsely reported as destroyed by Syrian and Russian forces.
The most sinister aspect of the Russian ambassador’s presentation was his demonization of the civilian population that Syrian and Russian forces have pounded, in blatant disregard of international humanitarian law, or the rules of war. Northwestern Syria, through Nebenzia’s Russian propaganda lens, is nothing more than a “stronghold of terrorists, shady elements and jihadists.” For Nebenzia, the estimated three million civilians in northwestern Syria are an afterthought in Russia’s obsession with so-called “liberation” of the area through a punitive and unlawful military campaign.
The inconvenient truth for Russia is that PHR has documented a damning critical mass of overwhelming, verified, and factually undeniable evidence that the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, have made targeting of health care facilities and other civilian infrastructure a deliberate strategy of this brutal eight-year conflict. War crimes have been committed by all sides in the Syrian conflict, but PHR’s meticulous verification process has determined that 91 percent of the attacks on health care facilities have been perpetrated by the Syrian military and its allies. They include a series of airstrikes that hit the Iman Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital in Orum al-Kubra in Aleppo’s western countryside on August 31 that injured two patients and a hospital staff member and put the facility out of service.
The elephant in Nebenzia’s press conference room was that the Russians have unconscionable quantities of Syria civilian blood on their hands from their four years of unconditional bankrolling, arming, and equipping of Assad’s war machine and for conducting military operations targeting civilians that may constitute war crimes. The UN Secretary-General’s newly-formed Board of Inquiry to investigate attacks on UN-supported facilities in northwest Syria is a possible opportunity for the UN to decisively challenge the Russian ambassador’sown disinformation campaign with hard facts – but only if the Inquiry identifies responsible parties and the Secretary-General releases its findings publicly. The facts are already out there. It’s the Russian government’s willingness to aid and abet that slaughter and the crimes of Syria’s armed forces that demand investigation and accountability.