Attacks on civilian hospitals in Syria have intensified in recent weeks, as efforts to deescalate the conflict between the Syrian government and rebel forces in Idlib province—the last remaining rebel stronghold—fall apart.
Such attacks are illegal under international law. But observers say the strategy is sometimes used to intimidate local populations—effectively making daily life untenable, forcing either a mass exodus or a surrender by the opposition.
The sometimes makeshift hospitals typically report their coordinates to the United Nations, which then shares those coordinates with all sides of the conflict. The expectation is that the warring parties will avoid bombing those areas.
But in the Syrian conflict, which has dragged on for more than eight years now, fighters have regularly targeted civilian hospitals. It’s such a dire problem, some hospitals have stopped reporting their coordinates and are now operating underground. Others, UN relief chief Mark Lowcock said in a briefing, have simply closed down.
“These attacks don’t just claim innocent lives,” he said. “They also deprive thousands of civilians of basic health services, even as fighting intensifies around them.”
At least 26 hospitals across Idlib province have been attacked since late April as the Syrian government fights to reestablish control of the last-remaining rebel territory—and declare the war over. The UN says it is now reviewing its policy of sharing coordinates as a result.
Syria and Russia, which materially supports the government of Bashar al-Assad, denied they were using the coordinates to attack hospitals, and said they don’t target civilian spaces.
Syria has been embroiled in a civil war since March 2011. It began as a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, which spread to Syria from Egypt and elsewhere during the Arab Spring revolts. It quickly devolved into a complex, multi-front conflict. Syrian forces have now regained control of a majority of the country.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a nonprofit, has been tracking and verifying attacks on civilian hospitals in Syria since the conflict began. The organization has an interactive version of the below map on its website.
The organization scours the internet for any news of an attack on a medical facility or personnel—then begins an extensive process to corroborate the report, including running it by their own on-the-ground sources in Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Finally, a panel reviews the team’s research before the incident is recorded on the map.
Rayan Koteiche, a researcher with PHR, said that only about 30% to 40% of the initial reports pass the verification process and make it on the map. Still, they have confirmed some 573 attacks on medical facilities since the war began.
“We’re seeing blatant attacks on de-conflicted areas, repeated attacks on the same spaces, and even on isolated facilities, all meant to disable medical operations to inflict as much pressure on the civilian population as possible,” he said about the recent attacks. “The consequences are going to be catastrophic.”