What Can We Do about Syria?

Photo courtesy of the Syrian American Medical Society

The Syrian crisis is the worst humanitarian disaster of our time. As a result of almost six years of conflict, the many parties involved in the civil war have carried out targeted attacks on health care facilities and personnel, as well as been responsible for blocking access to water, food, and health services through sieges. The country’s health system has been completely destroyed.

The conflict in Syria began with peaceful protests for human rights and democracy in 2011. Since then, it has spiraled into a brutal conflagration involving numerous parties: the Syrian government and its allies including Hezbollah, Iranian militias and Russian forces, and hundreds of opposition groups and ISIL, which a US-led international coalition is targeting. Though all parties in the conflict have perpetrated attacks on health care, the Syrian government and its allies are responsible for the vast majority of these attacks.

Our annual report, compiled in March 2016, estimated that 400,000 people had died during the conflict, over half of the country’s 22 million people had been displaced, and 13.5 million people were left in need of humanitarian assistance. Since then, although the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2286 in May, the worst atrocities against health care and civilians have continued.

Two member organizations of the coalition work directly in Syria. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) supports healthcare and health workers working under fire in Syria, including Aleppo, and advocates for action from the international community to end attacks on healthcare and allow unhindered humanitarian access to besieged areas. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) tracks and reports on the growing number of attacks on health. By June, PHR had documented 365 attacks on 259 medical facilities throughout the duration of the conflict, and had recorded the deaths of 757 health care workers.

In June, despite the already shocking numbers and Resolution 2286, the situation in Syria escalated and reached catastrophic levels. SAMS estimated that July alone saw at least 43 attacks, marking it the worst month for attacks on health care to date. Attacks on health facilities were happening every 17 hours in Aleppo by August. It was estimated that at least one million Syrians were living in besieged areas, where aid convoys were often stripped away of vital supplies such as medical and food aid, resulting in malnutrition, starvation and preventable deaths of civilians. In September, an aid convoy was attacked and destroyed, killing 20 aid workers and halting the delivery of much needed humanitarian relief to thousands of Syrians in Aleppo.

In October, Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported that there were only 11 ambulances left in Aleppo, and that “double-tap” strikes—when warplanes hit the same area that has just been attacked again after rescue arrives—were happening on a regular basis. In November, it was reported that following intense bombings the remaining hospitals on the rebel-held side of Aleppo were so badly damaged they were forced to stop providing care.

What can we do?

You can join the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition and its members on the ground —SAMS and PHR—in efforts to advocate for safeguarding health care and the implementation of Resolution 2286 by sharing the following recommendations to the UN Security Council:

  • Demand that all parties to the conflict immediately end attacks on civilians, health care, and civilian infrastructure, and allow unhindered humanitarian access to besieged areas across Syria. 
  • Compliance: Demand that states comply fully with international humanitarian law and create mechanisms to ensure all parties to conflict follow obligations to respect and protect health care
  • Tracking: Collect data and public report on violations—this is critical to not only end impunity, but also to develop preventive measures 
  • Investigation: Support the establishment of an international commission of inquiry to independently investigate alleged violations of international law. Hold briefings on specific country situations and initiate fact-finding investigations where warranted.
  • Accountability: Hold governments accountable for implementing the above actions, as well as ensure that perpetrators of attacks on health are held accountable.

Photo courtesy of the Syrian American Medical Society (remains of a hospital in Aleppo)