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Why are hospitals targeted in Syria? ‘People lose hope’

As the war in Syria raged on over the past six years, hospitals and clinics that were supposed to be treated as "neutral parties" became targets that were repeatedly bombed. Hari Sreenivasan discusses the bloody impact of this tactic with Stephen Morrison, director of the new documentary, "The New Barbarianism," and Dr. Ahmad Tarakji of the Syrian American Medical Society.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As the war in Syria raged over the past six years, hospitals and clinics were repeatedly bombed. According to the Geneva Conventions, medical facilities are supposed to be neutral parties in war.

    But, in Syria, as well as Yemen and a number of other conflicts around the world, they continued to be hit.

    “The New Barbarianism” is a documentary that addresses this additional war casualty. The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies made the film, and it was directed by a former “NewsHour” foreign editor, Justin Kenny.

    I taped a conversation on this topic earlier in the week, but first an excerpt, with a warning, it does include some graphic images.

  • Narrator:

    By April 2016, half of Aleppo’s population of three million were gone, displaced, in flight, dead or injured.

    Many who remained lived under siege with few means to escape, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military attempted to destroy rebel forces in the city.

    Aleppo’s medical community, targeted and in collapse, struggled to continue.

    Dr. Muhammad Waseem Maaz, one of the city’s last remaining pediatricians, was among a small group of doctors who vowed to keep working, despite the dangers. He’s seen here as he began his shift at Al Quds General Hospital. It’s the last time anyone saw him alive.

    He was killed when aircraft struck the medical facility with missiles.

  • Dr. Rami Kalazi:

    We were so surprised and shocked when we saw our colleagues covered with their blood and giving their last breaths.

  • Narrator:

    Neurosurgeon Dr. Rami Kalazi and staff at a nearby hospital tried to save victims of the attack, including severely injured health colleagues.

  • Dr. Rami Kalazi:

    I don’t know how to describe that. It’s so hard emotionally. It’s like you are losing one of your precious in front of your eyes.

  • Narrator:

    Fifty-five people died in the attack, among them, two doctors, two nurses, a technician and a guard.

  • Josh Earnest:

    This attack fits the Assad regime’s abhorrent pattern of striking first-responders.

  • Narrator:

    The Syrian government and Russia, its close partner in executing the air war, denied targeting the hospital. Hundreds of similar attacks upon civilian infrastructure followed.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on all of this, we turn to Stephen Morrison. He was the executive director of the film and is director of the global health policy at Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served on the State Department’s policy planning staff during the Clinton administration.

    And Dr. Ahmad Tarakji, he’s a cardiothoracic surgeon and president of the Syrian American Medical Society, a nonprofit medical relief organization that provides assistance to Syrians. He joins us from a hospital in Fresno via Skype.

    First, Stephen Morrison, let me start with you.

    Why target hospitals?

  • Stephen Morrison:

    It’s a very good way to demoralize a population in an area of conflict, if you take away something so fundamental to the functioning of society.

    You take that away, people lose hope, and it induces mass flight, and it weakens the armed enemy that you are opposing. So, it’s a very, very good tactic of war. And as long as there’s impunity, which, in most of these cases that we have seen, that’s true, then you’re not paying much of a price.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dr. Tarakji, first, just to set the stage a bit, tell us a little bit about the type of work your organization does. Our audience might not be familiar with it.

  • Dr. Ahmad Tarakji:

    My organization is the Syria Medical American Society, known as SAMS.

    At this time, we have about 120 medical facilities inside Syria, and about 2,000 medical professionals, doctors and nurses, are providing care for people inside Syria. In the year 2016, we provided care for more than 2.5 million people inside Syria.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, Doctor, how many of your facilities have been targeted?

  • Dr. Ahmad Tarakji:

    Starting from 2014 until now, more than one-third of the attacks, documented attacks on health care facilities are against SAMS facilities.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Stephen Morrison, is there a distinction that the airplanes are making between facilities that might be supported by clinics or organizations like Dr. Tarakji’s vs. anything else that is providing aid?

  • Stephen Morrison:

    Well, I think that the national and indigenous institutions in these zones of war, whether we’re talking about Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, there are over 20 countries where we’re seeing documented cases of this.

    The national institutions are even more vulnerable than those that are international NGOs. These cases go unreported oftentimes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dr. Tarakji, can you give us an example of what happens during one of these strikes? How do you respond?

  • Dr. Ahmad Tarakji:

    This is going to back to what happened in the city of Aleppo around those attacks that we just witnessed on (INAUDIBLE) hospital.

    So, around that time, the city of Aleppo was completely besieged. This is in Aleppo. And the goal was to displace the people and collapse the infrastructures in the city. And, as time goes on, those attacks were actually mainly waged against medical facilities. It wasn’t collateral damage.

    So, when we see those attacks, they follow a certain pattern. You see the attacks are targeting hospitals in the same neighborhood, so that the health facilities will collapse, as well as the airstrikes will start attacking ambulances and so on, so there will be no way to achieve or respond medically.

    What happened internally among the aid workers is they started communicated with us about documenting, reporting and what to do next. We have seen significant courage of the aid workers that they are not running away. Actually, they’re running into the risk. They’re not even — they’re not leaving their hospitals. They’re not leaving their patients.

    And the ambulances are rushing out, despite the airstrikes, to save as many people as we can. We had more than five attacks on the same hospital within a week, until that hospital collapsed and got out of service completely.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I want to ask a two-part question. One is, what sort of measures are you starting to take now? I have heard about hospitals moving into underground locations and caves.

    And, also, what keeps your doctors going back and putting themselves in harm’s way to do this work?

  • Dr. Ahmad Tarakji:

    We move many facilities to underground hospitals, and we move them to caves.

    And a few months back, we published our report showing that the casualties on the medical staff in those underground hospitals, despite the attack, has been zero.

    Unfortunately, the time we released that report, we witnessed the first medical staff casualty from chemical attack on our facilities in (INAUDIBLE).

    The other part that we did is what we call fragmenting the hospitals. So, you will see, for example, the pediatric units, it might not be connected to the intensive care unit. And you see all those units around, and that has decreased the casualties. It became a major challenge for all of us.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Dr. Ahmad Tarakji of the Syrian American Medical Society, and Stephen Morrison from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thank you both.

  • Stephen Morrison:

    Thank you.

  • Dr. Ahmad Tarakji:

    Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.

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