Syria Hospital Bombing Is A Terrifying Reminder That This Happens All The Time

Airstrikes hit 112 Syrian medical facilities in 2015 and 13 so far this year.

The deadly airstrike attack that shattered a Doctors Without Borders-supported hospital in southern Syria on Friday night -- killing three and wounding at least six -- is not an isolated incident.

Rather, it's an alarming reminder of the hundreds of similar incidents that have befallen the country since the war began in 2011.

Last year was "the worst on record for attacks on medical facilities in Syria," advocacy organization Physicians for Human Rights said in December. The group is keeping a tally of attacks on medical facilities in Syria, and said that the 2015 figures represented a 25 percent increase from the 89 attacks in 2012, which was previously the highest count.

And the numbers are only going up. Thirteen health facilities in Syria have been hit since the start of 2016 alone, according to Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières. MSF runs six medical facilities in Syria but also supports more than 150 clinics, health posts and field hospitals.

"We've seen an increase in attacks in the past week or two especially around the start of the Geneva [peace] talks," Elise Baker, a PHR program associate, told The Huffington Post. "Our fear was that as governments come together there's also a trend for attacks to increase on the ground because it gives groups more negotiating power."

Attacks on medical facilities are a blatant violation of international law, which dictates that areas containing hospitals are designated safe zones and "should not be the object of military operations."

But in Syria's conflict, access to medical care has become a weapon of war. 

PHR wrote in its December report that the Syrian government forces and its ally Russia were responsible for most of the attacks on medical facilities in 2015 and that a majority of those assaults were targeted attacks, "meaning that these locations were deliberately chosen for destruction."  

“The Syrian government -- and recently Russian forces -- have been relentlessly attacking medical facilities in violation of international law and in defiance of any respect for humanity,” Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs, said in the report.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces indiscriminately target cities and towns with heavy rebel group activity in order to reestablish government control, regardless of civilian casualties.

Russia launched an aggressive bombing campaign in Syria last fall intended to bolster Assad.

PHR documented 16 attacks on Syrian hospitals in October 2015 alone, more than any in one month since the conflict began in 2011. At least 10 were carried out by Russian forces

Other groups operating inside of Syria, such as the so-called Islamic State, also use the control of medical treatment to threaten local caregivers. ISIS militants demanded that one MSF doctor, who was based in the city of Raqqa, the group's stronghold, treat their wounded. They then pressured him to join the hospital they had seized and threatened him when he refused.

Experts warn that strikes on medical facilities often exacerbate the suffering of civilians, which has certainly been the case in Syria“Targeting the health system has compounded the crisis, caused many medical personnel to flee, and prevented countless civilians from getting treated," Brown said. 

Almost 700 medical personnel died between March 2011 and November 2015 as a result of these attacks, the PHR report said. And without doctors and nurses, civilians are cut off from access to medical care. 

In the city of Aleppo for example, less than one-third of hospitals were functioning last November, according to PHR, and about 95 percent of the city's doctors had either fled or been killed.

Earlier this month, the Assad government, backed by Russia, launched an offensive on Aleppo, which has killed 89 civilians so far, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. This attempt to besiege the city "has been disastrous for health care," said Baker, who has received five reports of repeated attacks on the same hospitals in the last few weeks.

"At precisely the time when medical services are most needed -- in the middle of a brutal war -- the health system is being systematically destroyed," PHR said last year.

A burnt out ambulance is seen after the Sahra hospital was bombed by the Syrian Army in Idlib, Syria, on Aug. 10, 2015.
A burnt out ambulance is seen after the Sahra hospital was bombed by the Syrian Army in Idlib, Syria, on Aug. 10, 2015.

The destruction of medical facilities as a tool of war extends beyond Syria.

More than 99 health facilities, including hospitals and clinics, have been damaged or destroyed in the civil war that has engulfed Yemen, the World Health Organization said.

MSF facilities often become targets. Strikes have destroyed two MSF facilities in Yemen in recent months and last October, U.S. airstrikes on an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killed 30 staff and patients.

"This cannot become the new normal," Vickie Hawkins, executive director of MSF U.K., wrote in a January op-ed in The Guardian. "This cannot become an acceptable trend to which the world resigns itself."

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Inside Syria's War