The Cable

Syria’s War on Medicine

In late March, United Nations relief workers in Syria received a long-sought green light to deliver aid to tens of thousands of desperate residents of Douma, one of several villages outside Damascus that have been besieged by the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for nearly two years, according to a pair of unpublished U.N. ...

AFP/ Getty Images
AFP/ Getty Images

In late March, United Nations relief workers in Syria received a long-sought green light to deliver aid to tens of thousands of desperate residents of Douma, one of several villages outside Damascus that have been besieged by the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for nearly two years, according to a pair of unpublished U.N. reports obtained by Foreign Policy.

By the end of the month, U.N. trucks had ferried food rations for 5,000 people into the town, along with sizeable quantities of nutritional supplements for local children and plastic sheeting for temporary housing for Syrians whose homes had been destroyed in the fighting.

But there was one item the U.N. was prohibited from bringing into the town: medical supplies. On March 29, Syria specifically blocked a U.N. truck carrying medicines and other medical supplies from entering Douma, according to an internal report by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, that was obtained by Foreign Policy.

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the Syrian government has conducted a multi-pronged assault on the country’s medical system, targeting doctors suspected of treating its opponents, bombing hospitals, clinics and blood banks in opposition areas, and denying deliveries of life-saving medical supplies to rebel-held areas. Syria’s armed opposition has also targeted the country’s medical workers and denied medicines to some communities considered loyal to the government, though on a much smaller scale.

In the coming weeks, the U.N. Security Council will begin deliberations on how to coax or compel Syria’s combatants to meet their obligation to ensure that the sick and wounded have access to medicines and other relief goods.

But in a report distributed late Wednesday night to representatives of the 15-nation council, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon provided a decidedly downbeat assessment, noting that "none of the parties to the conflict have adhered to the demands" of the Security Council to ensure the free flow of relief supplies for many of the more than 9 million Syrians in need of assistance, particularly those trapped in hard to reach conflict zones.

"Thousands of people are not getting the medical care, including life saving medicines, that they need," Ban wrote in a 21-page report assessing the Syrian combatants’ compliance with a February Security Council resolution demanding that they provide unfettered access to international relief workers or face unspecified consequences.

Ban noted that the parties have legal obligations under the Geneva Convention to ensure that the sick and wounded receive medical care. "Yet, medicines are routinely denied to those who need them, including tens of thousands of women, children, and elderly. The Security Council must take action to deal with these flagrant violations of the basic principles of humanitarian law."

Despite the tough words, the United States and other Western powers will have a tough time persuading Russia, which has served as the Syrian government’s main defender on the council, to hold off from vetoing a potential resolution designed to formally sanction Assad for his refusal to allow the transit of medical supplies. Relations between Moscow and the West have plunged to their lowest point in decades because of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, which triggered a set of punitive financial sanctions by the Obama administration and its European allies.

Syria has provided just enough cooperation with the international community — granting limited access to relief workers, supporting polio eradication efforts, and destroying most of its chemical weapons — to ease the political pressure at the U.N. to impose penalties on the government. But it continues to flagrantly violate its legal obligations under international humanitarian law in an effort to starve out pockets of potential support for Syrian insurgents, according to human rights advocates. A cornerstone of that strategy is a concerted government effort to limit the supply of medicines and other medical supplies in rebel-held areas of the country.

"Medical supplies that would have assisted 216,015 people in hard to reach and besieged areas were either removed from convoys, or the convoys were not allowed to proceed," Ban wrote in his report to the Security Council. "The inclusion of surgical supplies or any item that may be used for surgical interventions (including bandages, gloves, injectable medicines, antiseptics, anaesthetic medicines) continue to be restricted by the government for delivery into opposition held areas."

For instance, according to Ban’s report, the Syrian government has continued to prohibit the delivery of medicines and construction materials designed to build temporary shelters for the 15,000 civilians that returned to their homes in the besieged town of Madamiyet Elsham following a cease-fire agreement.

The internal OCHA report obtained by FP said there had been "several recent instances of medical and surgical supplies being removed from cross-line shipments of humanitarian supplies by government officials."

"From 22 March to 10 April, the U.N. and SARC [The Syrian Arab Red Cross] conducted 4 cross-line inter-agency convoys all to areas under opposition control," the report said. "Two of these convoys had medical supplies removed or blocked from proceeding."

The Syrian government has insisted that it is doing all it can to ensure that food and medical supplies reach civilians in besieged areas. "The government of the Syrian Republic continues the facilitation of access to all areas, including those hard to reach such as the recent aid distribution in Douma, Aleppo, Idleb and Al Yarmouk Camp," according to a letter from the Syrian mission to the United Nations to the president of the Security Council, Joy Ogwu of Nigeria. "According to the new measures adopted by the Syrian government, the [World Food Program] was able to increase the number of recipients of food aid to 4.1 million people … and UNHCR was able to increase the number of recipient[s] of the non-food assistance to more than 1.5 million people since the beginning of 2014."

Those numbers can be misleading: Foreign Policy, which first obtained those figures, revealed that the increase was largely due to civilians fleeing into government-controlled territory in search of food.

Syria has proposed a couple of changes designed, it says, to make it easier for aid to enter the country. One plan would involve Syrian officials in neighboring countries place seals on trucks delivering humanitarian relief into Syria. Government officials inside Syria would then be able to check whether anyone had tampered with the seals in an attempt to smuggle weapons onto the trucks. It also proposed a plan that would allow the U.N., along with the Syrian Arab Red Cross, to send surgical teams in mobile health clinics to besieged areas. The clinics, which would be administered by the Syrian government and the Syrian Red Cross, would be set up in the "no man’s lands" between government- and opposition-held areas.

Widney Brown, the program director for Physicians for Human Rights, which has been tracking attacks on health workers, said the Syrian proposal was deeply alarming.

"If services are in effect provided by government-vetted doctors the question is: wil
l they be impartial and provide medical assistance to, say, a wounded combatant who is a member of the opposition forces and not turn them over to the Syrian government?" she said.

Brown added that wounded or sick Syrians shouldn’t "have to go to a government-run clinic to get treatment," especially since the Assad government has spent years deliberately targeting civilians.

Preventing medicines from being delivered to conflict zones has long been considered a violation of international humanitarian law. But both the government and some rebel factions in Syria’s brutal civil war have tried to prevent medicines from reaching communities suspected of sympathizing with their enemies. Syrian doctors and nurses have paid a high price: Since the beginning of Syria’s conflict, more than 68 public health workers have been killed and another 100 injured.

"The conflict has had a devastating impact on the Syrian health care system and infrastructure, severely undermining people’s access to medical care and assistance," according to the OCHA report obtained by FP. "This has included the direct targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, and transports, denial of access to medical care, and ill treatment of the sick and the wounded.

The government fears that medical supplies — particularly items like antibiotics and surgery equipment — will be used to heal armed combatants, allowing them an opportunity to return to battle. Some of their opponents have come to feel the same way.

Insurgents have prevented food and medical supplies from reaching government forces and civilian residents in the pro-government towns of Nubul and Zahra in northern Aleppo, according to Ban’s report. The U.N. secretary general noted that the Syrian government had given its approval in early April for relief convoys to travel to the areas, only to have rebel groups refuse to allow them through.

Widney Brown said that Assad’s war on the country’s medical system began gradually but evolved into a sustained and systematic campaign that has included detaining and torturing doctors and bombing clinics, blood banks, and pharmacies. "The government decided to treat doctors as if they were the enemy," she said.

Brown said the majority of those attacks were carried by the Assad government, but stressed that her group was "definitely seeing an increase in the number of attacks by the opposition."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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