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The use of health as a tool of repression in Syria

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)

A recent report from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has highlighted the brutality of the Assad regime in its continuing attemt to curb the nationwide uprising in Syria.

A recent press release from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has given 15 testimonials from patients and health workers in Syria, gathered between January and February of this year. They provide a grim picture of the brutality of the Assad regime in its continuing attempt to curb the nationwide uprising in the wake of the Arab spring.

MSF has been trying for months to get official authorization from Syria to enter the country to operate but has so far been limited to assist from neighboring countries, providing care to those able to travel across the borders and who not dare seek help within the Syrian public health system. This leaves a large number of critically injured civilians in the hand of the regime or in the hands of doctors in makeshift hospitals with stretched resources and limited capabilities.

Syrian hospitals have become militarized and all patients are being registered in the regime’s attempt to identify people belonging to the opposition and carrying injuries consistent with those inflicted by the military and police during demonstrations. It has been reported that patients with severe injuries and in critical condition have been removed from the hospitals, including patients undergoing surgery. This has lead to the creation of underground networks by doctors, providing rudimentary medical and surgical services in makeshift field hospitals with provisional support and involvement from international organizations. Despite the efforts by these networks, the regime’s security service is forcing the field hospitals to move regularly to avoid detection. Doctors are under constant surveillance by security services and risk arrest and interrogation at any time. Deputy Director Dr. Greg Elder of MSF has described the regime using the public health system as a tool of repression in its relentless hunt for opposition supporters.

The testimonials, though not fully verified, provide a consistent pattern of abuse and repression by the regime within the health system, including brutal torturing and persecution of doctors. Doctors supporting the underground networks have been detained and there are reports stating that family members have been abused. Some patients seeking medical care in public hospitals with non-life threatening wounds have undergone forced amputation of limbs that could have been treated with less invasive measures, while others have been given little or no treatment needed for their conditions. To evade the security apparatus, patients provide false names and doctors give false diagnoses to conditions clearly caused by violent force. Doctors have also been diverting patients with trauma wounds from public hospitals when possible. Patients with the funds necessary have taken to private medical treatment as an option to the public system. However, the most important effort lies within the underground hospitals with their stretched resources. Major trauma cases have become almost impossible to handle as the nations blood supply is under the control of the Ministry of Defense. Blood donation is thus critical in the continuing operation of these field hospitals but at the same time most of these makeshift facilities lack proper transfusion equipment.  Using health care as a form of repression already starts in the streets according to one testimony, where the paramedics in ambulances were allegedly security force personnel selecting wounded for interrogation.

The worsening humanitarian situation in Syria continues to highlight the need for international involvement and action. However, the support seen for Libya to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 following support in the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the engagement of NATO, is highly unlikely in this more complex setting. First and foremost, Syria’s military capacity is seen as much more unpredictable, especially with regard to  non-conventional weapons. Furthermore, the recent vote for backing the Arab League on pressing Bashar Assad to step down in the UNSC was vetoed by Russia and China, who remain supporters of the Assad regime, both politically and militarily through weapons supplies. Russia, however, has been open towards humanitarian access to Syria and has been asked by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to persuade the Assad regime to allow access for humanitarian aid to those civilians trapped in the fighting. The ICRC has been brokering for daily ceasefires to allow humanitarian aid to permeate in areas of fighting and has managed, together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), to provide thousands of people with food and medicine, making them currently the only two organizations with any access to the country.

On March 19, technical staff from UN agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) were allowed to visit the city of Homs which recently has been an area suffering some of the hardest battles between the government and the opposition.  Also, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos visited Damascus to broker for access to aid workers and an official response from the Syrian government remains to be presented.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 5,400 people have been killed since the anti-government movement began last year, of which most were civilians. This figure will definitely continue to rise in lack of international pressure on the regime and as long as humanitarian aid is not allowed in full. While financial pledges from OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), UNHCR and the European Commission for Syria, the political issues and discord in the UNSC will remain a major hindrance in opening up a humanitarian corridor to the Syrian people, and is yet another example of why political and humanitarian objectives must be percived and kept separate.