Death from Above: Russia, the Syrian Regime and Civilian Targets

The successful implementation of a cessation of hostilities in Syria looks doubtful. The Assad regime with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah has mounted an increasingly deadly campaign to crush rebels in the north of the country. It comes at a time when all sides should be enacting confidence building measures. Meant to cut off the opposition from the Turkish border and surround the country’s largest city, Aleppo, the regime’s assault is taking a heavy toll on the civilian population. Making matters worse, on Monday Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies targeted hospitals and schools using aircraft and by some reports, cruise missiles. It resulted in at least 46 dead and dozens injured.

Turkey, France and the UN say these attacks violate international law, while Russia has categorically denied it carried out the attacks on three hospitals and one school. In a bizarre and nonsensical statement by the Russian Defence Ministry, Moscow even attacked Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for not providing information about the locations of the hospitals in Maarat al-Numan and Azaz which were targeted by the bombardment. The Syrian ambassador blamed the US for the strikes, a laughable assessment.

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The pattern is clear. According to Physicians for Human Rights, as early as 2011 government forces attacked hospitals in Damascus, Homs and Hama, impeded medical transport and detained and tortured doctors who treated wounded civilians. The organization has mapped these war crimes and documented a total of 336 attacks on health care facilities, 285 of which were carried out by the Syrian regime, another 12 by Russian forces. Furthermore, Amnesty International has documented the murder of 569 health care professionals between April 2011 and October 2014, a number that is likely to be much larger.

As shown by these figures, these deliberate attacks on healthcare facilities are not new. The fact that Russia is participating in what has, since the beginning of the conflict, been a policy of attacking medical facilities and those who work in them, should not come as a surprise. David Nott, a physician who has worked in Syria told BBC World Service that, “If you take out a healthcare worker, you take out healthcare for about 10,000-20,000 people and they won’t feel secure in the area and will feel that they need to leave.” Dr. Nott is right, the targeting of healthcare services by the Syrian regime is meant to ensure that civilians in rebel held areas fear living there and leave. Though, it is also part of a systemic effort by the regime, which has been on display since the beginning of the conflict, to ensure that rebels do not build up governance capacities within the territory they hold. This includes targeting bread lines and water infrastructure with barrel bombs, airstrikes and artillery.

For more, see my interview with CTV National News.

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