Regime targets medics in ‘brutal’ anti-terror effort, report charges

Physicians for Human Rights said Syrian government forces and their allies were targeting doctors, nurses and hospitals.
Sunday 08/12/2019
A wounded Syrian man receives medical care in the northern city of Aleppo, last November. (AFP)
Targeted destruction. A wounded Syrian man receives medical care in the northern city of Aleppo, last November. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Dr Ahmad, a surgeon from the Syrian city of Hama, was operating on a patient with a leg wound on October 27, 2011, when agents of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence burst in.

“They took me along with a lab technician,” the doctor told researchers. “Of course, they also took the patient. I was surprised to learn later that he was still alive. The way they pulled him off the respirator, I thought he wouldn’t last 10 minutes in their custody.”

The Syrian agents told Ahmad during interrogation that the patient was suspected of being a “terrorist.” That suspicion led them to arrest Ahmad as well. “My only crime was that I was a doctor,” he said, speaking after being held in detention for more than a year.

Ahmad’s testimony forms part of a report released December 4 by Physicians for Human Rights, a US-based NGO, that said Syrian government forces and their allies targeted doctors, nurses and hospitals in a “brutally effective strategy” to force civilians in rebel-held areas into submission.

“Since the beginning of the conflict, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented 583 attacks on health facilities; the Syrian government and its allies have been responsible for carrying out more than 90% of these attacks,” the report said.

“This study’s findings indicate that the government of Syria has targeted health workers for arbitrary arrest, detention and torture for the ostensible ‘crime’ of honouring their professional codes of ethics, which require them to provide care to the sick and wounded without discrimination.”

The 48-page report is based on interviews with 21 Syrian doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health workers detained by Syrian government forces from 2011-17. The names of Ahmad and the other interviewees were changed by PHR to protect their identity.

Rayan Koteiche, a PHR researcher on the Middle East and a co-author of the study, said the targeting of health workers and health facilities in the Syrian conflict was more ruthless than anywhere else in the world.

“Unfortunately, this is a brutally effective strategy,” Koteiche said by e-mail. “When you kill a health worker, you harm her patients. When you bomb a hospital, the damage extends far beyond the walls of the facility. The Syrian government and its allies have intentionally destroyed the health system in areas where real or perceived opponents of the government live.

“In PHR’s near-35 years of researching attacks on health care in conflict, what the Syrian government has done is without precedent.”

Syria’s government, which has been battling rebel forces since 2011, says it is merely fighting terrorists and their networks. With the help of Russia’s military, government troops have recaptured most regions formerly held by the rebels. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and has driven millions from their homes.

Koteiche said the Syrian government’s argument that it is defending the country against terrorism was not credible.

“It has justified its campaign of mass incarceration by labelling every act perceived to counter its interests as ‘terrorism’ and this is what the report gets at: the politicisation and criminalisation of health care,” Koteiche wrote.

The PHR report supports observations made by other NGOs. The US-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations recently said two hospitals in the last Syrian rebel stronghold Idlib had been attacked within a week.

The PHR report states that doctors and nurses were routinely tortured in detention to extract confessions of alleged terrorist activities and to gather information about other health workers or institutions.

“Interviewees reported that Syrian security forces regularly beat, humiliated and subjected them to stress positions. In some cases, they were burned, shocked with electricity and sexually assaulted,” the report said.

One doctor, identified as Dr Ibrahim, told PHR researchers that prison guards forced him to hold live electrical wires while the current was on. “Every cell of my body writhed from the pain,” the doctor said. “You feel like you can’t stop shrieking. The shocks bounced me around the room. Even after it was over, the pain persisted as if I was still being electrocuted.”

Tareq, a health activities coordinator from Aleppo, was quoted as saying that “losing consciousness was a blessing because it was a break from all the physical and psychological torture.”

Koteiche said PHR called on “all parties to the conflict, particularly the Syrian government and affiliated forces, to immediately and unconditionally release all arbitrarily or unlawfully detained individuals and allow unconditional access to detention sites in the country.”

PHR also wants other governments to use the principle of universal jurisdiction “to investigate and prosecute Syrian military and civilian officials responsible for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria,” Koteiche said.

Sweden, Germany and other countries have prosecuted Syrian officials for suspected crimes committed in the Syrian conflict. Koteiche welcomed those efforts and said more should be done.

“Further use of universal jurisdiction and eventual prosecutions will send a strong signal to war criminals, in Syria and beyond,” Koteiche said.