Open Letter: Stop the war on Syria’s hospitals

A version of this letter appeared in print in The Guardian on 2 June, 2019.

Over the past month, Syria and Russia have bombed 25 medical facilities in northwest Syria. We are appalled by the deliberate and systematic targeting of healthcare facilities and medical staff, which is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. Throughout the Syrian conflict, we have seen both Russia and the Syrian government attack hospitals prior to and during major offensives, their collective aims seeming to be the terrorising of civilians and reducing the ability of medics to treat sick and injured people.

Our letter couldn’t come at a more desperate time. Since 26 April, at least 270 civilians have been killed due to Syrian government and Russian attacks while a further 300,000 people were displaced. The continued escalation of airstrikes and other hostilities means civilians require medical assistance more than ever. But the repeated targeting of medical facilities by the Syrian government and Russia has forced the hospitals that remain to operate under a state of emergency, only treating the most urgent cases and unable to take in patients for routine care. These hospitals serve the 3.5 million residents of northwest Syria.

As doctors and medical workers and public health professionals from around the world, we condemn the Syrian and Russian governments in the strongest possible terms for their attacks on medical facilities. We stand in solidarity with our Syrian colleagues on the ground who are risking their lives to help those in need. We demand immediate measures to protect their lives and their work.

What is happening in Syria is unimaginable. We have watched in horror the footage of repeated airstrikes on hospitals and listened in shock to our colleagues on the ground who described patients fleeing bombed hospitals with IV drips still attached and choking on dust raised by the explosions. Rather than being a place of healing and refuge, hospitals are now some of the most dangerous places for civilians to be.

Many of the health facilities targeted by the Syrian government and Russia were based underground in secret locations to shield them from attack. As part of a United Nations deconfliction process, however, medical organisations shared their coordinates with the UN, which in turn shared them with Moscow and Damascus in a bid to shield them from attack. The decision to share coordinates was made after painstaking deliberations by medical staff and was ultimately adopted out of hope that it would protect their work and their facilities. The UN must immediately investigate the targeting of listed hospitals.

All armed parties in the Syrian conflict must respect medical neutrality and allow doctors, nurses and paramedics to treat their patients without violence, threatened or actual. International governments must reverse their decision to cut funding to medical facilities in northwest Syria and put pressure on Russia and its Syrian ally to stop targeting hospitals.

Healthcare in Syria has been under consistent attack since the 2011 uprising with medical workers forcibly disappeared and tortured and hospitals routinely bombed, killing dozens of doctors and nurses and patients. Between 2011 and December 2018, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented 566 attacks on medical facilities, 90% of them by Syrian and Russian government forces. Attacks have involved banned weapons including barrel bombs and chemical agents. In addition, PHR has gathered information on the killing of 890 medical personnel, primarily by the Syrian government and is allies. We cannot stand by and watch these same crimes continue to be committed against medical staff and facilities in the northwest. Their job is to save lives — they must not lose their own in the process.

Signed,

  1. Dr Aula Abbara, Doctor, United Kingdom

Signed in individual capacity (affiliations for identification purposes only)

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Supporting Syria’s heroes in their struggle for freedom and democracy