Russia's bombardment has targeted six hospitals in Syrian territory, multiple aid organizations in that country allege.
The air assault is bringing a spike in the number of civilian casualties being treated in hospitals affiliated with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), society president Dr. Ahmad Tarakji told AMI Newswire.
“We are seeing some preliminary data that the percentage of injured people has increased by 20 percent compared [with] the same period of time last year and compared [with] the same period of time even last month,” Tarakji said.
SAMS is the largest medical relief organization operating inside Syria.
Russia's bombing campaign began in late September in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The casualties appear to be coming from areas of the country where Syrian government forces are ramping up their own bombing campaigns in conjunction with Russian bombing, Tarakji said.
SAMS and other NGOs working in Syria have identified at least six hospitals that appear to have been targeted by Russian warplanes and missile attacks.
“Unfortunately, access to the health-care system is being used as a weapon,” Tarakji said.
Doctors Without Borders has called the attacks “war crimes” that are in violation of the Geneva Convention.
A SAMS-affiliated hospital in suburban Hama was one of those targeted by Russian forces. Two nurses and one support staff member were wounded.
“That stopped the operation of the hospital for some time and we are hoping to restart it again,” Tarakji said. “Interestingly enough, this hospital was attacked by bombs back in June by the Syrian warplanes, as well.”
Tarakji said the bombing of hospitals and the sharp increase in civilian casualties are causing a lack of medical accessibility. Loss of all forms of health care, not just treatment for war wounds, will have long-term effects on the ability of civilians to rebound after the war.
“Attacking those hospitals is not beneficial,” Tarakji said. “The only thing you get out of that is you just destroy the health-care system.”
On Sept. 30, the Russian military inserted itself into the civil war that has ravaged Syria since 2011 and displaced half of the country's population.
The Russian attacks follow more than a year of an American air campaign that has attempted to target Islamic State strongholds but avoid targeting other Sunni militias operating in Syria.
By comparison with President Obama, Russia's President Vladimir Putin's support falls squarely on the side of the al-Assad regime.
Prior to the Russian attacks, the family-led Syrian regime, along with its Shiite and minority allies, had been losing ground in what many opponents had hoped would be the regime's end game. Massacres and mass rapes are common as Sunni groups, primarily the Islamic State, have pushed President Bashar al-Assad's forces out of historic Christian and other minority enclaves.
European, Middle Eastern and American critics malign al-Assad as a dictator responsible for war crimes, charging that the government has used chemical weapons on Syrian citizens. But Russia, in league with Iran, has backed the al-Assad family since the iron regime of Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez al-Assad in the 1970s.
Russia has been providing military support to al-Assad against rebel groups. Some of these are the same groups that have received hundreds of millions of dollars of support from the U.S. government.
Russia has faced international censure over its air campaign, and tensions have stepped up since Russian jets violated Turkey’s airspace earlier in the week.
“In Syria, we have seen a troubling escalation of Russian military activities,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week in a speech to the North Atlantic Council. “We will assess the latest developments and their implications for the security of the alliance. This is particularly relevant in the view of the recent violations of NATO’s airspace by Russian aircraft.”
Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1952, and the intrusion into its airspace could be interpreted to activate NATO's mutual defense agreement.
Stoltenberg said NATO is mounting its largest collaborative defense effort since the end of the Cold War by setting up headquarters in Eastern Europe.
“NATO is able and ready to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threat," Stoltenberg said.
The U.S. State Department, in conjunction with the governments of France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Kingdom, also issued a statement about the Russian bombardment.
“We express our deep concern with regard to the Russian military build-up in Syria and especially the attacks by the Russian Air Force on Hama, Homs and Idlib which led to civilian casualties and did not target [Daesh],” the statement said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization. We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL.”
Yury Melnik, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., refused to comment on the reported targeting of hospitals in Syria.
"All the information about the targets engaged by the Russian aviation group in Syria is available in the website of the Russian Ministry of Defense with videos and explanations," Melnik told AMI Newswire. The website contains no information or comment about the hospitals.