'It's Your Turn, Doctor': Medics Under Fire in Syria

04/06/2016 19:17 | Updated 04 June 2016

'It's your turn, Doctor'. These were the words that initiated one of the cruellest conflicts in the recent history of the Middle East, the War in Syria.

A group of seven teenagers in the Syrian town of Dara'a, inspired by the winds of freedom and democracy blowing from the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, adorned their school walls with these words in defiance of the Syrian oppressive regime. Basher al-Assad, the Syrian dictator whose family has tyrannically ruled the country for four decades, is a doctor specialized in ophthalmology.

Security Forces treated with savage violence the young authors of the graffiti, which led the town of Dara'a to light the flames of revolution, initiating with their action a conflict that has lasted for five years and has no end in sight.

This conflict has witnessed unimaginable atrocities. Reports of extreme torture, the use of starvation as a weapon of war, indiscriminate barrel bombings, and chemical attacks have littered the international media. After months of investigations, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry in Syria concluded that the different parties to the conflict had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, although highlighting the manifest cruelty of the Government Security, Intelligence and Military Forces. According to one of the last reports issued by the Commission, the Syrian Government has committed mass extermination as a crime against humanity, one of the worst conceivable offences in international law.

However, as much as the Syrian conflict is a story of barbarity, it is also a story of bravery. Citizens have risked their lives to remove from Syria essential documents and material evidence that will allow the prosecution of those responsible for the atrocities committed. In 2012, a group of Syrian activists working with a military defector code-named Caesar--smuggled out of Syria more than 50,000 photographic images providing evidence of widespread torture, starvation, beatings, and disease in Syrian government detention facilities.

This piece, nevertheless, seeks to highlight the role of thousands of anonymous heroes that risk their lives every day in Syria to save others: the medics. During the conflict, they have had to deal with the frustration of war; treat terrible injuries under extreme conditions, without light or adequate supplies and instruments or after having worked around the clock for days. However, the situation is becoming increasingly critical: the continuous indiscriminate attacks of the Government forces have reached new deplorable levels, as doctors--who are seeking to help injured civilians--are now being targeted.

The organisation 'Medics Under Fire' has documented the killing of 615 medical workers since the beginning of the conflict. 97% of them died as a result of Syrian Government attacks, which evinces that this is not a two-side problem. More than two hundred hospitals have been destroyed by bombs dropped by Syrian forces, either directly or through its allies, which has deliberately and systematically targeted health institutions.

Given the number of hospitals destroyed and the recurrence of the attacks, it is possible to argue that it is an actual tactic of the campaign, aimed at heaping further suffering on those left residing in conflict zones and inflict extreme suffering in those zones that are out of the government's control. The words 'It's your turn, Doctor' have now acquired a completely different and tragic meaning in Syria.

Medical workers are being targeted in a way never seen before. They face arbitrary arrest, brutal forms of torture and ultimately execution due to their profession and their commitment to help the wounded and sick. There are two poignant examples that demonstrate the depravity of this war.

The first concerns Dr. Saher Halak, a Syrian medical physician from Aleppo. Dr. Halak attended a medical conference in Florida in April 2011. Returning to Syria he signed a petition for doctors to treat injured civilians. Dr. Halak had no political aspirations. He was a doctor. Upon his return to Syria he was abducted, detained, tortured and finally executed. His body was mutilated and showed signs of torture by electrocution. Dr. Halak's family deserve justice. Those persons who committed such a depraved act must be brought to justice.

The second example concerns the death of Dr. Abbas Khan. Dr. Khan was a British orthopaedic surgeon who travelled to Syria to treat civilian victims. On 16 December 2013 he was murdered by members of the Syrian security forces following at least a year of torture. Dr. Khan's family deserve justice in a court of law.

These are but two stories. More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed. Half the country's pre-war population - close to 11 million - have become displaced. Tens of thousand remain in the Government's secret prisons. The conflict has become the deadliest conflict of the 21st century.

The Syrian Government has expanded the use of of barrel bombs, an improvised explosive device filled with high explosives and shrapnel that has transformed into the worst nightmare of the Syrian civilian population, and has been the object of UN Security Council resolutions calling the forces from the Syrian Arab Republic to refrain from their use.

During the last months, Government forces have also added chemical weapons to these barrel bombs, thus killing not only citizens directly affected by the bomb, but also the medical teams that attempt to help the victims. Despite the evident risks, doctors often decide to treat the patients and end up inhaling poisonous gas.

This piece is not intended to be a legal report, but it must be noted that international humanitarian law, a body of law that regulates every conflict including the Syrian War, prohibits the use of weapons designed to inflict either excessive or unnecessary damage to humans and infrastructure, particularly, chemical weapons. Moreover, the main principle governing hostilities is the principle of distinction, which obliges actors to distinguish between military and civilian targets and abstain from attacking civilians and humanitarian workers. It therefore does not require a comprehensive legal analysis to recognise that the Syrian Government has committed, and continues to commit, international crimes on a colossus scale with absolute impunity.

Doctors in Syria shout a common cry for help from the international community: 'Stop the Bombing!' The UN Security Council must fulfil its role as guarantor of international peace and stability. It must overcome its political disparities and draw a red line. It is time for the Security Council to enforce its resolutions urging Syria not to use indiscriminate weapons and chemical weapons against the civilian population, resolutions that the Assad regime has woefully ignored.

International civil society must start coordinating to pressure the Security Council to protect Syrian doctors and civilians. There are important actions that can be implemented swiftly, such as a 'no-fly zone' or 'protected humanitarian corridors', and would completely change the situation of civilians living on the ground.

The establishment of Medics Under Fire, a non-profit group that brings together doctors, military and humanitarian specialists and lawyers is aimed at addressing this very issue.

The need for accountability and action has been present since the conflict started, but it has now become even more essential. The international crimes committed in Syria cannot be met with impunity. Enough is enough. Those responsible must face the consequences of international justice. It's your turn, Doctor.