Photo: Doctors and medical staff treating injured rebel fighters and civilians in Aleppo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2016

Few Doctors Left Behind as UN Prepares for Syria Peace Talks

By Jamshed Baruah

GENEVA (IDN) – More than 10,000 specialist doctors have left Syria, which is plagued by a persistent conflict now in its sixth year. About 40% of the population is therefore without access to primary healthcare, according to Syrian doctors representing the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM).

The situation is rather critical in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, which is home to about one million civilians. It is left with one doctor each for more than 3,300 civilians. In the eastern part of the city, which is besieged by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, more that 7,350 people have just one doctor at their service.

“An entire society is being eradicated in Aleppo while the world watches,” Syrian doctors said, and urged the United Nations and its member states to take urgent action to break the siege of the historic city.

At a press conference in Geneva on July 28, Syrian doctors representing the UOSSM warned that Syrian government forces were systematically targeting their colleagues, patients, and hospitals, as a matter of state policy.

“An entire generation of Syrians is being ravaged by the policy of military sieges, starvation, the denial of education and the destruction of primary health care,” Dr. Chamaa warned. “Doctors are being targeted as a matter of state policy to ensure that innocent civilians do not get the care they need. As a result, our children and babies are dying from diseases and injuries that are entirely preventable.”

At least 650 medical workers have been killed in Syria as hospitals have endured hundreds of military and aerial attacks. In the first half of 2016, more than 80 hospitals and medical facilities were targeted and over 80 health and humanitarian workers were killed, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said.

As a result, at least 10,000 specialist doctors have now left Syria, leaving roughly 40% of the population without access to primary healthcare.

On July 21, the head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria warned that heavy and indiscriminate shelling around the city of Aleppo was causing untold numbers of civilian casualties. Marianne Gasser noted that every neighbourhood of the city had come under fire during the previous few days and that vital infrastructure was being repeatedly hit.

“The situation is devastating and overwhelming.  We hear that dozens of civilians are being killed every day and scores more injured from shells, mortars and rockets. The bombing is constant. The violence is threatening hundreds of thousands of people’s lives, homes and livelihoods.”

In view of this devastating situation, Syrian doctors have called on the international community to:

Protect our hospitals and health workers from indiscriminate aerial attacks, which remain the primary killer in Syria;

Ensure full, unimpeded access and safe passage to all humanitarian aid convoys and workers to areas in need and enforce Security Council resolution 2165.

Enforce Security Council resolution 2139 to protect hospitals and civilian objects.

Implement immediately all the humanitarian articles included in UNSC resolution 2254.

The doctors’ impassioned plea has been widely disseminated by Save Our Syria (SOS), a coalition of Syrian civil society and humanitarian groups from inside and outside Syria, which seeks to ensure Syrian-led solutions to the Syrian crisis.

The coalition is of the firm belief that the starting point for those solutions is civilian protection, in particular from indiscriminate aerial bombardment which is the leading killer of Syrian civilians.

“Civilians must be protected, whether they stay in Eastern Aleppo or not,” declared the International Committee of the Red Cross in a press release on July 28.

“As world leaders head into Syrian peace talks, our goal is to amplify Syrians’ calls for civilian protection so that policymakers and the wider public understand the need for civilian protection and stand ready to take concrete steps to stop the killing, notes SOS.

The United Nations envoy mediating a resolution to the crisis in Syria said on July 26 that he aims to convene a new round of intra-Syrian peace talks towards the end of August, and expressed hope that the United States and Russia would make “concrete progress” in order to improve the atmosphere for the resumption of the discussions.

“Today, as you know, we had a meeting in Geneva at the UN premises here with both American and Russian senior officials. The subject was related to the urgent need of progress on the cessation of hostilities, on the humanitarian access, on counter-terrorism and, indeed, political transition,” Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, told reporters in Geneva.

De Mistura said the meeting coincided with the gathering that took place in Laos between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and United States Secretary of State John Kerry, during which they discussed ways to build on the understanding that had been reached in Moscow the previous week.

“We have made some progress today frankly, but more details need to be worked out in the next few days, particularly between the American and the Russian side, but we are there to support too,” the Special Envoy said.

“Our aim, and we say it very clearly, is to proceed with the third round of the intra-Syrian talks towards the end of August,” he added.

Previous rounds of talks this year stalled as fighting escalated in Syria, particularly around Aleppo. More than 280,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, and millions of people have been forced to flee the country.

Earlier in July 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it has reports of up to 40 confirmed attacks on health-care facilities across Syria in 2016, and nearly 60 per cent of public hospitals in the country closed or are only partially functional.

The Special Envoy said that progress on the understanding between Kerry and Lavrov will create the “right atmosphere,” both on the ground and for the intra-Syrian talks. “This is not a pre-condition, but we all know, we all agree, that if such steps take place, and we hope so, will have indeed a strong positive effect on the environment surrounding the talks,” De Mistura said.

He noted that in the context of the trilateral meeting on July 26, the UN, as facilitator and mediator, was asked by the co-chairs – Russia and the United States – to continue preparing proposals for addressing “difficult issues” related to the talks, which it would do while preparing for the end of August.

Asked whether the resumption of the peace talks had to wait until the end of August when the situation in Aleppo has worsened, the Special Envoy said the bombing, the rockets and the shelling in central Damascus, and the “horrible events” taking place in hospitals in Aleppo were “very much on the radar screen.”

He expressed the hope that while negotiations are under way to restart the talks, that – “tomorrow, the sooner the better” – the situation in those two war-torn cities could see some improvement. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 July 2016]

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo: Doctors and medical staff treating injured rebel fighters and civilians in Aleppo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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