On 25 May 2020, BBC News aired another typically misleading and inaccurate piece accusing the Syrian government of being responsible for the destruction of half the hospitals in Syria, and a Syrian doctor formerly from Aleppo, saying in response to a query about why he couldn’t go back, saying that “there is no-one there to go back to” (having just said he missed his family and friends, and despite the fact that over 1.5 million people still live in Aleppo). These Aleppo citizens are now thankfully free from the constant bombardment of hell-fire canon, rockets, shells, car-bombs and sniper bullets that the citizens of Aleppo endured on an hourly basis for 6 years from the beloved ‘moderate rebels’ that the British government has supported throughout the crisis, which I witnessed personally, but which the British media rarely reported. Tens of thousands of civilians have returned to Aleppo; homes are being restored and schools and clinics have reopened in East Aleppo. It is of course a vast undertaking that will take a long time, but I have seen these efforts myself in Aleppo in recent years.
Below, I outline some points gleaned from my many visits to the frontlines in Syria, including an important quotation from the Chair of the Council of Doctors in Aleppo with whom I met in Aleppo in September 2016 at the height of the conflict in the city. Also an article from the Washington Post confirming the use of hospitals as militant headquarters and Shari’a Courts and prisons in those areas occupied by western-backed jihadists. Finally, I raise questions about British sanctions.
• In 2013, terrorists destroyed the Al Kindi Hospital in Aleppo, one of the largest heart hospitals in the Middle East, with a massive car bomb, and executed the Syrian soldiers they captured who had been defending the hospital.
• Most ‘hospitals’ in areas of conflict were no longer operating as such. Most civilians had fled (the millions of refugees). Most were used as militant HQs. Those I visited shortly after being recaptured by Syrian forces were still strewn with shell casings from the fighters who occupied them, extremist graffiti on the walls, Shari’a documents etc. Schools, hospitals and residential areas were deliberately occupied by militant groups thus becoming battlegrounds. (As indeed was acknowledged by the allied forces who used this reason to justify their indiscriminate obliteration of Raqqa and Mosul killing far more civilians in their attacks on those cities than have been killed in Aleppo by the Syrian and Russian forces).
• Health Service in Syria continues to be free to citizens and continues operating despite huge shortage of drugs and medical equipment, made worse by sanctions.
• Syria used to be the largest exporter of drugs in the Middle East. The main factory producing drugs in Syria was destroyed by the militant groups.
• As stability returns to most of Syria, the health service there is desperately trying to provide healthcare to the millions of people in the country who are suffering the ravages of war. There are still hospitals and clinics all over the country in desperate need of doctors. Why aren’t the patriotic Syrian doctors who are so sacrificially helping the NHS, going back to their country to help their people, or at least campaigning for an end of sanctions so that medical equipment and drugs can reach the suffering nation?
• In 2017, I visited two of the main public hospitals in Aleppo still operating, a wing of which had been shelled and destroyed by the militant groups. The corridors were crowded with people. Drug supplies were very limited. They said they had just one plasma dialysis machine for the whole city left working but because of sanctions they could not get parts to repair others or new machines. Meanwhile, new medical equipment and tons of drugs were being supplied to terrorist groups by international charities.
• In December 2016, I was one of the first foreigners into East Aleppo hours after its recapture and met with some of the thousands of civilians emerging from East Aleppo who chose to return to government-controlled areas (the majority) at the Jibrin Registration Centre. (Strangely, all foreign media had left Aleppo at this point). All spoke of the brutality of life under the militants, and that food and medical supplies (provided by international governments and charities) were prioritised for fighters and often only distributed to civilians on payment of exorbitant prices. They also said that most had wanted to leave but had been forced to stay, in effect as human shields. This was a common story amongst the millions of internally displaced Syrians who fled to government-controlled areas. When militant-controlled areas were recaptured by the Syrian army, many of these stashes of supplies were found in former schools and hospitals that had become militant HQs.
On 13 September 2016, I met with the Doctor’s Council of Aleppo in Aleppo. (At the time, Channel 4 was reporting about ‘the last paediatrician being killed and the ‘last hospitals’ being bombed). The meeting was held in a Christian area of the city, close to the frontlines, that was frequently being targeted by the militant groups.
The Chair of the Council said the following: “You must understand that there is a media war against Syria, so you won’t hear about what’s happening in Government-controlled areas. Actually there are 250 paediatricians currently active in Aleppo. The one that was killed is not on any register as a doctor in this city. Nor is the Al Quds hospital that was supposedly destroyed known in Aleppo. It was probably a temporary field clinic set up by the terrorists. When they say that a ‘hospital’ has been targeted by the government, they are usually temporary field clinics; they are not registered clinics or hospitals. Today, there are 4260 doctors in Aleppo of which 3150 are active. Of these, about 1500 are specialists. Since the start of the conflict, 20 registered hospitals have been destroyed by the terrorists. But there are still 6 active public hospitals and about 40 small private hospitals in the city. At the moment we have a huge shortage of medicines and equipment in both public and private hospitals, including MRI machines. Our priorities are spare parts for equipment. Most of the aid given by the WHO and by other agencies, and all the resources given by Saudi Arabia and Turkey goes to the terrorists, not to the citizens of the city.”
Account of the Former Eye hospital in Aleppo that became a Jabhat al-Nusra HQ:
In 2017, I visited the remains of the former eye hospital in East Aleppo that had been used as an HQ, Shari’a Court and prison by Jabhat al Nusra. I saw the cells in the basement where prisoners had been held and the piles of extremist literature still on the floor that they had been forced to read, and the Islamist graffiti on the walls – and the piles of Shari’a documents littering the rooms of the hospital – and the cages in which people had been held in and placed on the roof (to stop the Syrian/Russian airforce from bombing the building). An account from 2013 from the same hospital appeared in the Washington Post – well worth reading and provides evidence of what I am saying:
The British government prides itself on being at the forefront of the Humanitarian Response to the crisis in Syria. The reality is that the vast majority of this aid goes to Syrians outside Syria’s borders or to Syrians inside areas controlled by militants Islamist groups that are responsible for multiple crimes of violence against civilians. Little international humanitarian aid is reaching the vast majority of the Syrian population inside Syria, because of sanctions against the Syrian government and agencies such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent working with the government, who are providing most of the health care and welfare services in Syria. The hospitals are operating but face a devastating shortage of equipment and drugs. Because of sanctions, they cannot get the parts or equipment for vital medical equipment and because of the banking sanctions they cannot buy the drugs that the people need. The banking sanctions make a mockery of any claim to ‘humanitarian’ concern, since they are holding the whole nation to ransom – for purely political purposes. Likewise, sanctions that prohibit the sale of products to the Syrian Ministry of Health and associated agencies continue to cause further suffering to innocent civilians. If the British government truly has humanitarian interests at heart, would it consider lifting such sanctions – those that prohibit banking transactions and engaging with Syrian NGO’s and Government Health Agencies to improve the life of Syrian citizens, suffering the consequences of a war made infinitely worse by international support of Al-Qaeda linked militant groups.
Revd Dr. Andrew Ashdown