Annie Sparrow, deputy director of the human rights program at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, writes: Over the last few weeks, the growing plight of Syria’s civilian population has drawn belated international attention to the country’s failing health system. In late October, in the eastern part of the country, the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of polio — a highly infectious, fast-spreading disease that poses a potential threat not just to Syria but to the entire region. At the same time, reports of malnutrition and disease in the besieged areas on the outskirts of Damascus and other embattled cities, where there are severe shortages of food and milk, have raised new fears of a spreading public health disaster. But these developments are hardly new, nor are they, as the international press has suggested, simply the unfortunate byproducts of an increasingly brutal war. They are connected to something far more sinister: a direct assault on the medical system by the Syrian government as a strategy of war.
The Assad regime has come to view doctors as dangerous, their ability to heal rebel fighters and civilians in rebel-held areas a weapon against the government. Over the past two and a half years, doctors, nurses, dentists, and pharmacists who provide treatment to civilians in contested areas have been arrested and detained; paramedics have been tortured and used as human shields, ambulances have been targeted by snipers and missiles; medical facilities have been destroyed; the pharmaceutical industry devastated. Directly and indirectly, the attacks have had a profound effect on tens of thousands of health professionals and millions of Syrian patients, let alone the more than 2 million refugees who have fled to neighboring countries.
Here is how a surgeon from Aleppo describes the attitude of the Syrian government. Last April, while treating a man seriously wounded by a government sniper, he was accosted and wrenched away by a military intelligence officer: “We are shooting at them in order to kill them. This is obvious,” the intelligence officer told him. “Since you are stopping him from dying, you are a terrorist. For this you will be punished.” The surgeon’s clinic was destroyed, his wife’s clinic was shut down, and they were forced to flee Aleppo. As a surgeon, he is not authorized to practice in Turkey, where they have taken refuge, despite the urgent need of his skills there.
In the northwest city of Idlib, the Red Crescent hospital was simply taken over by the Syrian army after a systematic crackdown on its medical staff. Before the war, the hospital had some twenty doctors and forty nurses. By March 2012, when the army arrived, there were only three doctors left — two anesthetists and a surgeon — and two nurses. The hospital’s director, Dr. Abdulrazaq Jbero, had been killed a few weeks earlier by a government sniper on his way back from Damascus in a Red Crescent vehicle. [Continue reading…]
Among observers who are reflexively skeptical of any reporting critical of the Assad regime, here is one attempt to dismiss Sparrow’s report:
Given how accurate coverage of Syria over here has been, I’m skeptical. The hospitals in Iraq were a complete mess after the invasion, between destruction and looting and lack of power. And the professional classes were fleeing because they had enough money and skills to do so. Oh, and no media coverage of that here, from what I could tell at the time. So a comparison v. how messed up Iraq’s hospitals were v. Syria’s now would provide a useful reality check.
There is actually a much more obvious and immediate parallel that can be drawn: attacks on doctors in Bahrain.
Having witnessed the Obama administration ineffectual appeals for Bahrain to exercise restraint even as the U.S. has continued supplying it with weapons, Assad could reasonably have concluded that he could employ the same tactics with impunity.