On the morning of March 21st, artillery shells hit a hospital in northwest Syria, killing seven civilians and injuring at least 16 others. Government forces launched 3 artillery strikes at al-Atarib Surgical Hospital in the rebel-held city of Atareb in western Aleppo. Injured patients and medical staff were sent to the nearest hospital, while unharmed patients were sent home. The attack occurred despite a ceasefire that covers the surrounding Idlib Province, brokered between government-backed Russian and rebel-supporting Turkish forces in March 2020.
In an interview given to NBC News, hospital director Omar Hallaq confirmed that the medical facility is now out of service, with extensive damage sustained to the building’s structure and the emergency and orthopaedic clinics completely destroyed. Hallaq reported that the director of the Health Department of Liberated Aleppo, Dr Nawwar al Kurdi, was among the injured medical staff. A ten-year-old boy and his mother were among the casualties reported.
The hospital is run by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), serving thousands of local community members each month in medical treatment, surgeries, and emergency and obstetrics services. SAMS have reported that four civilians were in critical condition and were transported to Turkey for emergency treatment.
According to Al Jazeera, the hospital is also known as the al-Maghara Hospital, Arabic for ‘cavern,’ because the hospital was built underground for better protection against artillery fire. Despite this, the attack was not the first of its kind. In 2018, the hospital was bombed and put out of use temporarily. Since then, SAMS medics have shared the coordinates of the facility with the UN-led deconfliction mechanism, hoping to avoid being hit. Evidently, these efforts were in vain and rendered the hospital an easy target.
The attacks violate a ceasefire negotiated between the government allied Russian and rebel-backer Turkish forces a year ago. Al Jazeera reports that this truce curbed a “months-long regime military offensive” in the rebel-held bastion of Idlib province. However, numerous violations by the regime and its allies have been documented since then, mostly by Russian air strikes in the region. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) have urged all parties to “abide by the ceasefire, to uphold their obligations to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and to work towards bringing a peaceful end to the war in Syria.”
This artillery attack on a Syrian medical facility is the latest in a longstanding hospital bombing campaign led by Syrian government and Russian forces that began in 2015. The IRC notes that this is the fifth such attack on Syrian medical facilities in 2021 alone. Since the start of the conflict a decade ago, nearly 600 attacks on health care have been documented. “Health facilities are protected under international law and should be safe havens in times of crisis,” said Rehana Zawar, the IRC Country Director for Syria, “but after 10 years of war this is not the case in Syria.” In the midst of a global pandemic, the crisis in question is twofold. Not only should medical facilities be safe havens in times of war, but as the world is ravaged by a deadly virus, they are crucial in the provision of medical care and support to the local community. To stage a fatal attack on a surgical hospital during a global public health crisis is thus a particularly pernicious strategy to inflict permanent damage to the town.
In a video posted to the Syrian Civil Defense twitter account, a member of the rescue team implores world leaders to take decisive action against a devastating attack that has not only resulted in civilian casualties, but destroyed a hospital that has an extensive reach, providing medical treatment to over 120,000 Syrians in the Idlib province.
“In light of COVID-19 pandemic, the whole world are [sic] supporting their medical staff, but here Assad’s killing them and widening the disaster. We appeal to the international world to hold Russia and Assad accountable for their aggression and crimes.”
SAMS president Dr. Mufaddal Hamadeh has emphasised the need for the UN Security Council to better enforce its existing resolutions, calling on the UN to “renew its effort to find meaningful ways to protect healthcare personnel and to hold perpetrators accountable.”
Access to medical care is an inviolable human right, and the persistent offensive by Russian-backed government forces on hospitals and healthcare facilities targets the most vulnerable civilians and the most overworked in the Syrian health sector, where the labor force has depleted substantially since the conflict began. While world leaders denigrate the developments within Moscow’s domestic political sphere, and imposing sanctions in the name of democracy and human rights, innocent Syrian lives have been under fire and will continue to be until the atrocities committed by Russian and government perpetrators against Syrian healthcare facilities are penalised in a court of international law.