Syrian Medical Voices from the Ground: The Ordeal of Syria’s Healthcare Professionals

"Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, healthcare has been withheld as a tool of war. One of the most alarming features of the conflict has been the denial of medical care to those from opposition-controlled and affiliated areas by the government as a matter of policy.1 Healthcare has been denied to Syrians through lack of access, prevention of aid delivery, removal of medical supplies from aid convoys, and widespread attacks on medical facilities and health workers. Syria’s government forces have targeted doctors and health workers providing care to injured demonstrators, members of the opposition, or civilians injured in opposition-controlled areas. In the past two years, the government has embarked upon an even more aggressive strategy of using air power – from missile-firing jets to helicopters dropping barrel bombs – to attack medical facilities, personnel, and ambulances as a means of denying care to the wounded and forcing civilians to flee the areas around hospitals. Although indiscriminate and sometimes targeted attacks on health facilities and personnel have been features of war in the last half century, the Syrian strategy of inflicting catastrophic injuries on civilians and then methodically targeting institutions and personnel who would treat them is uniquely horrifying. The consequences of this strategy are devastating to the lives and health of civilians who remain in Syria, including the health workers struggling to save them. Syria is the most dangerous place in the world to be a doctor.

Despite high levels of targeted violence, members of the Syrian medical community have been the backbone of crisis response and relief, risking their lives in order to save lives. They have operated on patients while barrel bombs fall on surrounding neighborhoods and even the facilities themselves, and have coped with a grave shortage of staff, supplies, and electricity. They have created an underground healthcare system to treat patients in relative safety, using sandbags to secure makeshift emergency rooms. They have acted as first responders while being threatened with airstrikes, detention, torture, harassment, and even death for treating patients.

This report provides a ground-level view of healthcare in opposition-controlled areas of Syria based on interviews with health professionals working in field hospitals in those areas. It explores the uses and consequences of violence against healthcare professionals and facilities and the efforts of the Syrian medical community to respond to the evolving crisis. It provides a glimpse into the realities that civilians and the medical community in Syria face."

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