Document of the Week: U.N. Calls Out Syrian Propaganda Over Hospital Attacks

Assad’s shaky case for innocence in the face of war crimes charges crumbles at the United Nations.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
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Throughout its civil war, Syria has routinely blitzed the U.N. Security Council with a barrage of diplomatic letters that portray President Bashar al-Assad’s government—which is responsible for the vast majority of killing during the eight-and-a-half-year conflict—as a victim of foreign-backed terrorists.

Throughout its civil war, Syria has routinely blitzed the U.N. Security Council with a barrage of diplomatic letters that portray President Bashar al-Assad’s government—which is responsible for the vast majority of killing during the eight-and-a-half-year conflict—as a victim of foreign-backed terrorists.

Last month, Syria tried to fend off overwhelming evidence that its air force targeted hospitals and ambulances in the northwestern province of Idlib in blatant violation of the laws of war, claiming in a letter to the U.N. Security Council and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres that there were essentially no legitimate hospitals or ambulances left in Idlib, as they had been overtaken by terrorists. The U.N., in response, said “nonsense.”

“All health-care facilities in Idlib Governorate have been rendered inoperative since the terrorist groups overran them,” Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, wrote in the July 16 letter. “The ambulance network has been completely knocked out, with 33 ambulances stolen by the terrorists for use as car bombs or in terrorist operations.”

But the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, Mark Lowcock, challenged Syria’s contention, noting that of the 119 health care facilities Damascus claimed were terrorist outposts it provided the names of only five of them. Two of those, Lowcock said, are in fact bona fide hospitals that received support from the United Nations.

For instance, the medical center at Maarrat al-Numan “has been functioning as a hospital since December 2014,” Lowcock said. “The current operating partner, helped by the UN, has been supporting the hospital since April 2015, and it is still supporting it today.”

Another medical facility listed by Syria, the Ibn Sina Hospital, has been in operation since April of this year and more recently received funds from the U.N. and other donors to refurbish its basement, Lowcock added.

Lowcock also dismissed Syria’s claim that there are no ambulance networks in Syria, noting that emergency ambulances were filmed and photographed trying to save three young Syrian girls—Reham, 5, Rawan, 3, and Tuka, 7 months—after their home was bombed. “You have all in recent days seen footage and photos of ambulances in Idleb,” he said.

The horrifying image of one of the girls, buried in rubble and clinging to the shirt of her baby sister, who was hanging perilously from the upper floors of their bombed-out apartment building, has stepped up pressure on the Security Council and Guterres to do something to stop the killing. In the end, Tuka survived, but her sisters, and their 25-year-old mother, died.

During the past three months, Syrian forces, backed by Russia, have been carrying out a brutal military offensive against one of the last major rebel strongholds in Idlib, placing more than 1.5 million civilians at risk. The U.N. claims that more than 400,000 people have been driven from their homes, and at least 450 civilians have been killed since late April. Dozens of civilians have also been killed or injured by rebel groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the Security Council.

“This latest relentless campaign of air strikes by the government and its allies has continued to hit medical facilities, schools and other civilian infrastructure such as markets and bakeries,” Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said on July 26. “These are civilian objects and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident.”

On Tuesday, 10 of the Security Council’s 15 member states, including the United States, pressed the U.N. chief to open an investigation into attacks on at least 14 U.N.-backed medical facilities.

On Thursday, Guterres announced he would launch an official board of inquiry to gather facts surrounding the attacks. “I believe that this inquiry can produce an important result,” Guterres told reporters.

But he was vague about the mission of the inquiry and whether it would seek to place blame on the perpetrators of the attacks, raising concerns among human rights advocates over the prospects of securing justice. “I can guarantee that everything will be done to make sure that this board of inquiry acts with full objectivity, not to prove anything, but to simply say what the truth is,” Guterres told reporters Thursday.

The 10 Security Council members, meanwhile, raised concern with Guterres about the effectiveness of a so-called deconfliction arrangement designed to protect medical facilities. Under the terms of the arrangement, the U.N. emergency relief office shares the GPS coordinates of medical facilities in Idlib with Russia, Turkey, the United States, and its coalition partners to prevent them from being accidentally struck in the fog of war.

The attacks on such facilities has raised concern that Syria, and Russia, may be using the information to help target medical facilities. “[W]hether the information provided through the deconfliction system is … being used by the parties to protect civilian facilities from attack or to target them for attack is an extremely important question,” Lowcock said. “I have asked the Russian Federation for clarification of what it does with the information.”

It remains to be seen whether that will be possible. A senior Russian diplomat, Dmitry Polyanskiy, denied Thursday that Syria and Russia are targeting hospitals and questioned the U.N. chief’s legal authority to stand up a board of inquiry. Polyanskiy said he doubted the investigation is being carried out to establish the facts around events in Idlib. “This is for the sake of blaming Syria and Russia for the things we do not do,” he said.

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