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Hospitals Under Constant Attack in Syria

Hospitals across the country are becoming increasingly common targets. Air strikes hit 112 Syrian medical facilities in 2015 and have already hit at least 13 so far this year, adding up to what some experts have deemed to be a “systematic destruction” of Syria’s healthcare system.

Written by Willa Frej Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The deadly airstrike attack that shattered a Doctors Without Borders-supported hospital in southern Syria on Friday night – killing three and wounding at least six – is not an isolated incident, The World Post reports.

Rather, it’s an alarming reminder of the hundreds of similar incidents that have befallen the country since the war began in 2011.

Last year was “the worst on record for attacks on medical facilities in Syria,” advocacy organizationPhysicians for Human Rights said in December. The group is keeping a tally of attacks on medical facilities in Syria, and said that the 2015 figures represented a 25 percent increase from the 89 attacks in 2012, which was previously the highest count.

And the numbers are only going up. Thirteen health facilities in Syria have been hit since the start of 2016 alone, according to Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres. MSF runs six medical facilities in Syria but also supports more than 150 clinics, health posts and field hospitals.

“We’ve seen an increase in attacks in the past week or two especially around the start of the Geneva [peace] talks,” Elise Baker, a PHR program associate, told the Huffington Post. “Our fear was that as governments come together there’s also a trend for attacks to increase on the ground because it gives groups more negotiating power.”

Attacks on medical facilities are a blatant violation of international law, which dictates that areas containing hospitals are designated safe zones and “should not be the object of military operations.”

But in Syria’s conflict, access to medical care has become a weapon of war.

PHR wrote in its December report that the Syrian government forces and its ally Russia were responsible for most of the attacks on medical facilities in 2015 and that a majority of those assaults were targeted attacks, “meaning that these locations were deliberately chosen for destruction.”

“The Syrian government – and recently Russian forces – have been relentlessly attacking medical facilities in violation of international law and in defiance of any respect for humanity,” Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs, said in the report.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces indiscriminately target cities and towns with heavy rebel group activity in order to re-establish government control, regardless of civilian casualties.

Russia launched an aggressive bombing campaign in Syria last fall intended to bolster Assad.

PHR documented 16 attacks on Syrian hospitals in October 2015 alone, more than any in one month since the conflict began in 2011. At least 10 were carried out by Russian forces.

Other groups operating inside of Syria, such as the so-called Islamic State, also use the control of medical treatment to threaten local caregivers. ISIS militants demanded that one MSF doctor, who was based in the city of Raqqa, the group’s stronghold, treat their wounded. They then pressured him to join the hospital they had seized and threatened him when he refused. Experts warn that strikes on medical facilities often exacerbate the suffering of civilians, which has certainly been the case in Syria. “Targeting the health system has compounded the crisis, caused many medical personnel to flee, and prevented countless civilians from getting treated,” Brown said.

Almost 700 medical personnel died between March 2011 and November 2015 as a result of these attacks, the PHR report said. And without doctors and nurses, civilians are cut off from access to medical care.

In the city of Aleppo for example, less than one-third of hospitals were functioning last November, according to PHR, and about 95 percent of the city’s doctors had either fled or been killed.

Earlier this month, the Assad government, backed by Russia, launched an offensive on Aleppo, which has killed 89 civilians so far, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. This attempt to besiege the city “has been disastrous for healthcare,” said Baker, who has received five reports of repeated attacks on the same hospitals in the last few weeks.

“At precisely the time when medical services are most needed – in the middle of a brutal war –- the health system is being systematically destroyed,” PHR said last year.

The destruction of medical facilities as a tool of war extends beyond Syria.

More than 99 health facilities, including hospitals and clinics, have been damaged or destroyed in the civil war that has engulfed Yemen, the World Health Organization said.

MSF facilities often become targets. Strikes have destroyed two MSF facilities in Yemen in recent months and last October, U.S. airstrikes on an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killed 30 staff and patients.

This cannot become the new normal,” Vickie Hawkins, executive director of MSF U.K., wrote in a January op-ed in the Guardian. “This cannot become an acceptable trend to which the world resigns itself.”

This article originally appeared on The World Post, a partnership between the Huffington Post and the Berggruen Institute. For weekly updates about international news, opinion and analysis, sign up for The WorldPost email list.

Top image: FILE – In this Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, file photo, a Syrian doctor notes the name of a severely wounded man at Dar al-Shifaa hospital in Aleppo, Syria. In late 2012, Mohammed al-Haj worked as a volunteer in Dar al-Shifaa. The hospital saw a constant flow of wounded and dying. Mohammed was one of more than 600,000 migrants and refugees who crossed land and sea seeking to reach Western Europe in the first 10 months of 2015. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)

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