There are countless ways in which warfare debases a society. In Syria, perhaps one of the more glaring is the politicization of medical care.
The Syrian government has systematically denied life-saving medical care to civilians suspected of sympathizing with the country’s insurgency, according to a report released today by a Geneva-based U.N. Commission of Inquiry. Syrian doctors, it added, have expressed a "well-founded fear of punishment" if they are found to have treated an enemy combatant, according to the report’s findings
The anti-government opposition has not been without blame. The report suggests medical personnel live in fear of abduction by armed opposition groups who suspect they are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad‘s government.
"One of the most alarming features of the conflict has been the use of medical care as a tactic of war," the report stated. "Medical personnel and hospitals have been deliberately targeted and are treated by the parties to the conflict as military objectives. Medical access has been denied on real or perceived political and sectarian grounds."
In an example of the risks to medical personnel, the U.N. commission reported Syrian government forces in December shelled hospitals in the Yarmouk camp, a district in Damascus that houses Syria’s largest Palestinian population. In Daraa, Syrian interviewees told U.N. investigators that "official hospitals were permitted to treat only members of Government forces and their supporters." Inside hospitals, security forces carry out interrogations and arrests of patients suspects of supporting the rebellion. Sunni Muslims, who make up the vast majority of Syria’s population and of the opposition, are routinely abused by Syrian government forces while receiving medical care.
The issue of medical care may have played a role in last week’s U.N. hostage crisis. The U.N.’s captors, which identified themselves as the Yarmouk Martyrs brigade, initially protested that it had seized the 21 Filipino peacekeepers because they were providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian forces they were battling in the area. U.N. sources said that the peacekeepers in the Golan Heights had provided medical care to wounded Syrian soldiers, but they said that they had done the same in the past for wounded rebels.
Today’s 10-page report provides a grisly snapshot of life in war-wracked Syria, where massacres are routine, extremist violence is on the rise, war profiteers exact greater exact increasing costs on desperate civilians, and bakeries and funeral processions have become military targets.
The Syrian government and its paramilitary allies continue to bear responsibility for the most serious crimes, according to the report, which cites an intensification of indiscriminate shelling, airstrikes, and the use of surface-to-surface missiles against targets in heavily populated civilian areas. One missile strike alone in Aleppo on Feb. 18 "is reported to have killed over 200 people." Four days later, another deadly missile strike killed at least 50 people, including children. "Insider accounts detail Syrian Air Force commanders giving orders to shell entire areas of Aleppo city without discriminating between civilian and military objectives," according to the report.
But the armed opposition is also behaving badly, recruiting child soldiers, beating suspected government sympathizers at checkpoints, and routinely seizing hostages for ransom.
"One interviewee," the report stated, "speaking about events in Jdeida, Damascus governate, said that kidnappings by armed groups had become ‘common’ and had focussed on ‘the Christian community’, as they were known as goldsmiths and were able to pay the ransoms."
The report claims that anti-government armed groups have also acquired increasingly more sophisticated weaponry in recent weeks, but that their "lack of expertise and training often results in disproportionate and indiscriminate use and fewer precautions taken to protect civilians."
The commission said it is continuing to investigate reports that the armed opposition umbrella organization, the Free Syrian Army, carried out mortar attacks on Mushrefa, an Alawite village in Homs, which appears to have directly targeted the civilian population." The report also signaled out a number of bombings in Syria by extremists groups, including the Al Nusra Front, in Damascus and other heavily populated areas.
Even more alarming, the violence in Syria is taking on an increasingly sectarian character as Syrian forces and their armed allies target civilians on the basis of religion and ethnicity, according to the report.
"In a disturbing and dangerous trend, mass killings allegedly perpetrated by [government-supported] Popular Committee have at times taken on sectarian overtones," the report stated. The U.N. commission also cited reports that armed opposition groups have been targeting Shiite and Alawite communities in Damascus, Homs and Daara. "The taking and holding of hostages along communal lines by armed groups has risen sharply in recent months."
"The conflict continues to be waged by both Government forces and anti-government armed groups with insufficient respect for the protection of the civilian population," the report concludes. "A failure to resolve this increasingly violent conflict will condemn Syria, the region and the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire to an unimaginably bleak future."
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