Airstrikes hit two Syrian hospitals, with Turkey condemning ‘obvious war crime’
Airstrikes hit two Syrian hospitals, with Turkey condemning ‘obvious war crime’
The prospect of even a temporary truce in Syria seemed as distant as ever on Monday, as violence continued unabated across much of the country with hospitals in two towns apparently being bombed by forces supporting Bashar al-Assad, days after Russia denied it was targeting civilians in its aerial campaign.
The attacks highlighted the fragility of a deal agreed last week in Munich for a “cessation of hostilities” and the impact on civilians of an unforgiving air war led by the Kremlin that has helped consolidate Assad’s position and exacerbated the misery of the five-year conflict, driving tens of thousands out of their homes towards the Turkish border.
The bombardment of a hospital is a too-frequent ‘accident’. It’s also a war crime
Assad, the Syrian president, made a televised address on Monday saying that any ceasefire did not mean each side had to stop using weapons.
The purpose of any agreement was to stop “terrorists from strengthening their positions” by gaining ground, he claimed. “Regarding a ceasefire, a halt to operations, if it happened, it doesn’t mean that each party will stop using weapons,” Assad said in Damascus.
“A ceasefire means in the first place halting the terrorists from strengthening their positions. Movement of weapons, equipment or terrorists, or fortification of positions, will not be allowed,” he said.
Meanwhile Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, backed a call from Turkey for a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, saying it would alleviate the situation of displaced Syrians.
The hospital airstrikes came a day after Barack Obama urged Moscow to halt its bombing campaign, illustrating the lack of leverage western powers have over peace negotiations aimed at ending a war that has killed nearly a third of a million people.
The White House on Monday condemned the bombing “in the strongest possible terms”. US state department spokesman John Kirby said the continuation of the aerial campaign “flies in the face of the unanimous calls by the ISSG (International Syria Support Group), including in Munich, to avoid attacks on civilians and casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people”.
The violence risks drawing Turkey, a stalwart backer of the rebels, further into the conflict as it looks on with growing alarm at Kurdish expansion near its border, as Kurdish fighters take advantage of the rebels weakening and vacating territory under the Russian onslaught.
Turkey’s foreign ministry on Monday said the strikes amounted to Russia carrying out an “obvious war crime” and warned that bigger and more serious consequences would be inevitable if Russia did not immediately end such attacks.
The airstrikes on hospitals in two locations in northern Syria mark the latest in a series of attacks on medical facilities and workers, including 14 so far this year.
Médecins Sans Frontières said seven people were killed when a facility it supports in Maaret al-Numan, Idlib province, was hit four times in two separate raids. Mego Terzian, MSF’s France president, told Reuters he thought that either Russia or Syrian government forces were responsible. Both have been engaged in an unrelenting aerial bombardment in Idlib.
The hospital, which has 54 staff and 30 beds, is financed by the medical charity, which also supplies medicine and equipment.
“The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of about 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict,” said Massimiliano Rebaudengo, MSF’s head of mission in Syria.
People gather around the rubble of a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders near Maaret al-Numan, in Syria’s northern province of Idlib after the building was hit by suspected Russian air strikes.
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People gather around the rubble of a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders near Maaret al-Numan, in Syria’s northern province of Idlib after the building was hit by suspected Russian air strikes. Photograph: Ghaith Omran/AFP/Getty Images
In a separate incident, Syrian opposition activists said a missile struck a children’s hospital in the rebel-held town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, killing 10 people and wounding more than 30. The Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said a Russian ballistic missile had hit the town.
The UN’s children’s agency, Unicef, said four facilities were hit, two in Azaz and two in Idlib. “We at Unicef are appalled by reports of attacks against four medical facilities in Syria – two of which were supported by Unicef,” the organisation said in a statement. “One is a child and maternal hospital where children were reportedly killed and scores evacuated.”
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“Apart from compelling considerations of diplomacy and obligations under international humanitarian law, let us remember that these victims are children,” the statement added.
The Syrian National Coalition’s representative to the EU, Mouaffaq Nyrabia, said the hospital attacks demonstrated “Russia’s lack of commitment to ending this conflict” and called on the UN to investigate, alongside other attacks on medical facilities in Syria.
Moscow’s intense airstrike campaign has in recent months helped Assad score his most significant advances since the beginning of the war.
The Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, issued a blanket denial over the weekend that his country was targeting civilians and civilian facilities in Syria, but several attacks on health centres have been documented since Russia’s intervention. In the first month of the campaign launched last October, NGO Physicians for Human Rights documented seven Russian attacks on medical facilities in Syria.
“They are targeting hospitals specifically; this is systematic,” said Zaidoun al-Zoabi, the head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations, when asked about the Russian claim. “Who bombed the hospitals? For God’s sake, who bombed the hospitals today?”
Riad Hijab, the head of the opposition’s high negotiations committee and a former Syrian prime minister, on Sunday reiterated the opposition’s demand that airstrikes are halted and sieges around the country lifted, adding that Assad must leave for peace in Syria to take hold.
“Every day, hundreds of Syrians die from airstrikes and artillery bombardment, poison gas, cluster bombs, torture, starvation, cold and drowning,” said Hijab, speaking in Munich. “The Syrian people continue to live in terror and in utter despair after the international community failed to prevent even the gravest violations committed against them.
“The best approach to put an end to Daesh [Isis] and other extremist groups must start with the removal of the Assad regime.”
Russia resumed airstrikes on Monday in northern Latakia province near the Turkish border as well as Aleppo, bombing rebel positions to pave the way for a regime advance. Obama urged Russia on Sunday to halt airstrikes against mainstream rebels.
Meanwhile, Turkey shelled positions controlled by the YPG, a Syrian-Kurdish paramilitary force, for the third consecutive day on Monday near the rebel-held border town of Azaz. Davutoğlu said Ankara would not allow Azaz to fall to the Kurds and accused them of acting as a proxy for Assad and Moscow.
Turkey, which strongly backs anti-Assad rebels, is fighting an insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) on its own territory and has viewed with growing alarm what it sees as Kurdish expansionism in Syria. Ankara says the YPG is simply the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.
Turkey’s defence minister denied, however, that Turkey had sent troops into northern Syria and said it had no intention of doing so, as speculation grows of a possible ground intervention by opponents of the Assad regime.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain said last week that they were ready to send small numbers of ground forces into the embattled country as part of the US-led coalition against Isis.
Merkel, the German chancellor, joined the calls from Turkey for a no-fly zone. “In the current situation it would be helpful, if there could be such an area, where none of the parties are allowed to launch aerial attacks,” she told the daily Stuttgarter Zeitung.
Merkel acknowledged it was impossible to negotiate with “terrorists from the Islamic State … but if it’s possible for the anti-Assad coalition and the Assad-supporters to come to an agreement, that would be helpful”.
Turkey, which is already hosting around 2.2 million Syrian refugees, has been calling for a secure zone within Syria where the displaced could find safe haven.