‘Crimes Against Humanity Were Committed Every Day in Syria’

A Syrian American doctor describes the devastation in Idlib, Syria.

Mufaddal Hamaddeh (center) works with a Syrian American Medical Society neonatal intensive care nurse and medical field officer at Ibn Sina Hospital in Idlib, Syria, on Feb. 9.
Mufaddal Hamaddeh (center) works with a Syrian American Medical Society neonatal intensive care nurse and medical field officer at Ibn Sina Hospital in Idlib, Syria, on Feb. 9. Muawyia Hasan Agha/SAMS

Syrians in Idlib, one of the last provinces still held by rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad, have faced particularly rough conditions in recent months, including harsh weather, a COVID-19 outbreak, and a countrywide economic collapse.

Residents of the province, situated in northwest Syria along the Turkish border, include some 1 million internally displaced Syrians who live in tents.

Although fighting in Idlib has waned in the last year, government forces continue to surround the province on three sides, besieging rebel groups, including Syria’s former al Qaeda wing. The ongoing standoff has prompted some Syrians to refer to the area as a “kill box.”

Mufaddal Hamadeh, a Syrian American doctor, spent a few days in Idlib earlier this month, visiting health clinics and meeting with patients. Hamadeh is the president of the Syrian American Medical Society, which has raised millions of dollars to build clinics and improve the health infrastructure in northern Syrian, an area badly ravaged by the war.

This interview with Hamadeh was edited and condensed for clarity.

Foreign Policy: Why are you in Syria today?

Mufaddal Hamadeh: We are running three COVID hospitals, and I visited one of those yesterday, and we have managed some of these patients in the intensive care unit. Many of our doctors inside the United States are helping their colleagues managing these patients using telehealth technology. Our colleagues here in Syria don’t have great experience dealing with COVID, and, you know, in the U.S., we have gained vast experience dealing with COVID.

We also have the cancer treatment program. … There’s a big need, which is treating cancer patients, those patients who can’t go to Turkey here to get treatment. They can’t go to regime-controlled areas, so we founded this cancer treatment program, and it’s helping a lot of patients … particularly women with breast cancer who need treatment after their diagnosis.

FP: Idlib is a fluid situation, and it must be difficult as you set up this infrastructure to think about how this infrastructure survives if there is a change in control. … I think we’re all sort of wondering what happens next with Idlib, but the status quo is probably not going to last forever.

MH: Medical care was systematically weaponized by the government and its allies—so [doctors] here are very much used to their facilities being targeted and their lives being put in danger day in and day out. Many of them used to go to their work at the hospitals not knowing if they were going to go back home.

One thing facing the doctors today and the population is the uncertainty and the unknown, and after 10 years, I’ve started to feel that there is some despair settling in because they see no progress, no future. … Only the hardcores have hope that things are still going to get better. But I ask all the doctors, and they all told me yesterday that if anyone was faced with the chance of leaving the country, emigrating, they would all do that.

FP: One thing I have a problem with as a journalist is communicating to people outside the scope of the problem there. The refugee camps for example, are kind of difficult for people to get their heads around.

MH: My main concern is the children, the future of Syria, that have been traumatized for a long, long time. Losing their parents, losing their friends. Last year, I was here, and I met a child who lost five family members the same day, and I met his brother. And what struck me was the fact that they were all numb—death was something that they got used to. It was a daily fact of life, and that, by itself, was shocking to me.

FP: What do you think people outside Syria misunderstand most about the last 10 years?

MH: Crimes against humanity were committed every day in Syria, and the world was silent about it, and the world and world leaders bear huge responsibility for what happened to the Syrian people. They could have stopped it. They would have been able to stop it. … This is something that we have vowed, as an international community, not to allow the Holocaust to happen again, not to allow Srebrenica to happen again, not to allow Rwanda to happen again. But we did allow it in Syria. And if we continue to allow this to happen, it will happen again and again.

David Enders is a Polk Award-winning correspondent and producer based in Beirut and covering the region. Twitter: @davidjenders

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