What Syria's bombing of hospitals is doing to the rest of us

These war crimes will slowly cease to shock and outrage our collective conscience

Shelling of northern Syria's Afrin hospital kills at least 18

Shelling of northern Syria's Afrin hospital kills at least 18
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Over the weekend, the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad returned to one of its preferred methods of conducting warfare – bombing hospitals.

On Saturday evening, regime warplanes carried out airstrikes on a hospital in the town of Afrin, which is under rebel control, killing 13 people and wounding 11, per initial reports by an NGO involved in running the facility. Two nurses were killed, as were two ambulance workers, and a midwife was in critical condition – essential workers of the sort venerated around the world these days, who have become targets for the Syrian government. The two missiles hit the emergency and the labour and delivery wards of the hospital, which has been put out of service and evacuated.

Ironically, this latest crime followed a flabbergasting election last month that saw Syria elevated to the executive board of the World Health Organisation for a three-year term, despite a decade of impunity, bombing hospitals, targeting medical workers, destroying ambulances and killing first responders with so-called "double-tap" strikes. This latest bombing highlights what the Syrian government thinks of the concepts of a rules-based international order and impunity in violating the tenets of international law and the norms of warfare.

A member of Syria's Civil Defence service (White Helmets) inspects the damage on June 13, 2021, in one of the rooms of the Al-Shifaa hospital, a day after it was hit by artillery shells in the rebel-held northern Syrian city of Afrin, reportedly fired by pro-regime forces, killing at least 18 people, and wounding more than 23, according to a war monitor. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a doctor, three hospital staff, two women and two children as well as a rebel commander were among the dead.
A member of the White Helmets inspects the damage in one of the rooms of Al Shifa Hospital earlier this month. AFP

Syria has systematically targeted health facilities as a weapon of war from the early years of the revolution-turned-civil war, a strategy that amounts to committing war crimes and may also be a crime against humanity.

The evidence for this is catalogued in countless videos and archival footage, testimony, survivor accounts, independent UN reports, investigative journalism, open-source investigations, and other methods. I visited one such destroyed hospital during a trip to Syria in 2017, and it was a disorienting and disturbing experience. The facility was built into the side of a hill to protect it against airstrikes, but had nevertheless been put out of commission by over half a dozen missile strikes because it was treating chemical attack victims. I spent plenty of time in hospitals as a child because both of my parents were doctors, and the rhythmic orderliness of the wards felt a world away as shattered glass crunched underneath my feet, medicine was strewn on the floor, and the bright white lights were replaced with an enveloping darkness.

The NGO Physicians for Human Rights, which tracks attacks on healthcare facilities worldwide, has documented 595 attacks on at least 350 medical facilities throughout Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011, and a whopping 540 of them, or 90 per cent of all bombings, were carried out by the Syrian military, Russia, and allied forces. At least 930 medical workers have been killed over the course of the war – in the bombings themselves as well as by torture or extrajudicial killings. Once again, the Syrian government and its allies had the lion’s share of the abuses, with 827 of the killings, or 89 per cent, carried out by them.

This systematic destruction of people and facilities whose role is to provide succour and healing amid the endless bloodshed was not even carried out because of military or tactical expediency – the war crimes were enshrined into law. In 2012, the government designated medical facilities in opposition-controlled areas as legitimate military targets as part of an anti-terrorism law. Most regimes that commit atrocities and abuses of this scale at least seek to obscure their role in carrying them out or deny the fact that they even happened. Not the Syrian regime – it is happy to signal its premeditation and intent before committing war crimes, confident in its estimation that the world will do nothing about it.

Idlib doctors protest against Syria getting WHO board seat

Idlib doctors protest against Syria getting WHO board seat

It is probably past time for the world to do anything about it. In fact, Syria has been given membership of the executive board of the world’s global public health body.

But we must not lose sight of the broader implications of these crimes and what they do to our collective humanity and sense of decency and their impact on the conduct of war in the future. International norms are simply that – norms that we all agree to uphold. These norms can be replaced by new norms if they become obsolete.

If the world at large decides that bombing hospitals is against international norms and customs, that norm is only valid for as long as it is upheld. If we do not uphold it, bombing hospitals in war becomes the norm, and is deployed with greater impunity in the next major conflict because it ceases to shock and outrage our collective conscience. As these norms are eroded, so does our collective sense of morality.

For every doctor, nurse, paramedic, man, woman and child killed in these endless hospital bombings, we all lose a piece of our humanity.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National