AMMAN: The Assad regime and its allies have attacked more than a dozen medical facilities across opposition-controlled areas of Idlib and Hama provinces since February 1, as local doctors and human rights activists tell Syria Direct that such bombings bear a “terrifying resemblance” to the battle for east Aleppo.
In total, the two-month wave of missile strikes—both conventional and chemical in nature—has either partially or entirely destroyed at least seven major hospitals, two field hospitals, four specialized clinics and one medical warehouse.
The result: In the aftermath of an airstrike—such as Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun—victims must now travel dozens of kilometers, often as far as the Turkish border, in order to receive life-saving or even basic medical care. With major medical centers bombed out of service, six medical professionals across opposition-controlled Idlib and north Hama provinces tell Syria Direct that the region’s health-care system is at the breaking point, overburdened by the area’s swelling population.
“The bombing of hospitals and medical facilities is non-stop, and every time a doctor is killed, it drains an already struggling medical sector,” Dr. Abdullah a-Darweesh, the director of the Hama Health Directorate, told Syria Direct. “Every time a medical center or a hospital goes out of service, people suffer.”
Attacks on health infrastructure—despite constituting a clear war crime—are hardly a new phenomenon six years into the war.
A recent survey of 107 hospitals in rebel territory across Syria by the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) found that each facility had been “hit at least once by a direct airstrike,” the organization reported in March 2017.
“Some hospitals were struck as many as 25 times. On average each hospital was attacked three times directly or seven times indirectly in 2016,” the report added.
The half dozen Idlib and Hama medical professionals who spoke with Syria Direct said that the two-month period between February 1 and Tuesday’s Khan Sheikhoun attack had seen paralleled levels of destruction for the area’s medical infrastructure.
Airstrikes destroyed a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders near Maaret a-Numan, February 2016. Photo courtesy of Ghaith Omran/AFP/Getty Images.
“This period is the worst it’s ever been for the medical field, particularly amidst the military escalation in the area,” Dr. Abdul Hamid Dabbagh, who oversees all Idlib province hospitals, told Syria Direct.
Already this year, Syrian, Russian and United States-led coalition airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians across Idlib and Hama provinces. With such attacks a daily occurrence, the potential loss of life from any one airstrike is further compounded given the increased population density of these areas. Tens of thousands of rebel fighters and civilians have arrived to Idlib province in recent months, the result of a series of rebel surrenders and subsequent evacuation deals around the country.
Aftermath of an airstrike on the Idlib town of Jisr a-Shughour on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Idlib Civil Defense.
Jumaa al-Arab works as an ambulance driver in Idlib and has borne witness to the area’s incremental degradation of its medical infrastructure. But before working in Idlib, al-Arab was the head of an ambulance team in his home city of east Aleppo, the site of the regime’s air and ground campaign that culminated in the opposition’s surrender of Syria’s second city last December.
“When I look at this military escalation in Idlib, especially against the medical centers, every single memory of what transpired in encircled east Aleppo comes flooding back,” the ambulance driver told Syria Direct. “I see what happened in Aleppo being repeated here in Idlib, and I’m plagued by indescribable fear.”
These attacks are not accidental, Fadel Abdul Ghani, the founder and director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told Syria Direct, but rather constitute what he called a clear and deliberate tactic of spreading fear and displacement.
The Assad regime “bombs residential areas and hospitals the same amount of times as the fronts,” he said. “It sends the message: ‘We will kill you together; even the wounded don’t have a chance to live, or anywhere to go.’”
Subsequently, Abdul Ghani says, “fear begins to creep into people’s hearts, and homelessness and displacement begin; this, in the end, is the basic goal of this tactic,” he added.
An area that has its medical infrastructure bombed into oblivion “will never know stability, it will never be safe and people will remain in a state of anxiety and confusion, unable to ever build themselves up again.”