Sharif Al-Ghazal: Healthcare has been weaponised in the Syrian conflict

The targeting of Syria’s medical infrastructure is designed to terrorise the population, and is deepening the humanitarian crisis, says Sharif Al-Ghazal

The Syrian conflict has raged for the past eight years with no end in sight. The uprising against Bashar Al-Assad which began in March 2011 has become a humanitarian disaster bringing about devastation that no one could imagine. More than half a million Syrians have lost their lives and nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million have been internally or externally displaced. Much has been written about the medical situation in Syria and the plight of our fellow doctors in Syria who remain in the war-torn country. 

The Syrian regime has systematically attacked hospitals and healthcare facilities and established them as a target within the theatre of war. This is even after the United Nations shared the GPS coordinates of hospital sites in the Idlib Province with Russia in the naive hope of preventing attacks. This however resulted in the continuation of airstrikes by Russia and the Syrian regime proving that the targeting of medical facilities is intentional. This has subsequently led to doctors in Idlib from now on refusing to share the coordinates of their local hospitals in fear of further attacks. Even more recently, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (otherwise known as UOSSM) has published updated figures stating that 55 hospitals and medical facilities have been disabled and are no longer in use in the north of Hama province and the south of Idlib. These figures are shocking. Moreover, another report indicates that around 80 medical facilities in the north west region of Syria have either been hit or closed down due to fear that they will be systematically targeted. Deliberate attacks on medical facilities constitute war crimes under international law though the Syrian government continues to ignore this. The British consultant vascular and war-surgeon David Nott reported of relentless bombardment of clinics and surgical facilities when he was in Aleppo operating on Syrian civilians who were casualties of airstrikes and barrel bombs.

The systematic targeting of hospitals by the Syrian government is designed to terrorise local populations into submission and as “punishment” for those in opposition held areas. No matter the motive, continued attacks of this nature are of grave concern and have led to the exodus of a significant number of doctors. In Aleppo for example, 95% of its doctors have fled just two years after the uprising began highlighting the extreme danger they were in. This has left the population in dire straits and in urgent need of medical attention.

The lack of medical facilities in Syria has created a public health emergency in the country. Vaccination rates have plummeted with diseases such as Polio re-emerging as a result of the conflict, with the Syrian government even going as far as withholding vaccinations from areas deemed to be “unsympathetic” to them. Healthcare has been weaponised by the government of Syria. The UN has been extensively lobbied by more than 400 Syrian medical workers and humanitarians who wrote a letter to the organisation in the hope that Russian and Syrian regime forces stop bombing the Idlib region which is meant to be a de-militarized zone. Tragically, these efforts seem to have been made in vain.

As doctors and healthcare professionals, we know that it is not enough to merely address the symptoms of a disease, we should deal with the root cause of the medical problem. Therefore, it is not enough to only address the refugee crisis and provide medical and humanitarian aid. The Syrian government which has been proven to have broken international law repeatedly must be held to account in this regard by the international community and a political solution must be found in order to rebuild the medical infrastructure. 

We understand how important the Hippocratic Oath is to our profession and we ensure that our patients safety and wellbeing is paramount. How ironic that the leader of Syria is himself a qualified doctor who seems to have not just forgotten the Hippocratic Oath in his actions, but has actively gone against it.

Sharif Al-Ghazal is a Consultant Plastic Surgeon from Bradford and member of the Syrian British Medical Society. 

Competing interests: None declared