Friday 30 September 2016

Goal's Derek O'Rourke on why humanitarians are considered 'preferred targets' in Syria

Derek O'Rourke

Published 09/03/2016 | 12:01

Heavy smoke rises from a location said to be a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital in Marat al Numan, Idlib, Syria. Reuters/Social Media Website via Reuters
Heavy smoke rises from a location said to be a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital in Marat al Numan, Idlib, Syria. Reuters/Social Media Website via Reuters

IMAGINE the following scenario:

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A hospital in your town is hit by an airstrike.

The top floor collapses down onto the second floor, and several medical staff and patients are killed or trapped in the rubble.

With the smoke and dust still thick in the air, members of the Civil Defence run across town and, skilled by now in scenarios such as this, these ‘White Helmets’, as these first responders have become to be known, start digging survivors out.

Fifteen minutes pass, then another airstrike slams into the building. The second floor collapses. More medical staff, patients, and this time the ‘White Helmets’ are killed.

This is called a ‘double-tap’ airstrike. It was no coincidence that the second missile landed in the same location as the first.

Over the next hour, two more airstrikes - a half-hour apart - destroy what’s left of the hospital and kill more humanitarians, more first responders, and more civilians. The wounded are taken to the other medical facility in the town. Later that afternoon, that building is also targeted by a ‘double-tap’ airstrike.

It is hard to imagine. But that is what happened in the town of Ma’arrat an-Numan in the Idleb countryside of northern Syria on Monday, February 15.

Both hospitals were supported by international NGOs. Nine hospital staff were killed, as well as 16 patients, one of whom was a child. Survivors were still being pulled out of the rubble of the first hospital by the ‘White Helmets’ two days later.

On that same day, three more hospitals in northern Syria were targeted, as well as two schools. One of the other hospitals, in Azaz in northern Aleppo, was a maternity and children’s hospital. Over 50 civilians were killed that day. All were non-combatants.

In his somewhat confusing denial that neither the Syrian nor the Russian air force perpetrated the attack, the Syrian Ambassador to the UN claimed that the INGO supporting the first Ma’arrat an-Numan hospital - Doctors Without Borders (MSF) - is a front for French intelligence. This claim is a clear effort, as MSF themselves put it, at “criminalising humanitarian aid”, thereby somehow legitimizing the targeting of humanitarian operations.

In the last 12 months, GOAL has mourned the deaths of three of our Syrian staff. Two more survived a missile strike but were maimed for life. Every one of our Syrian staff has multiple stories of loss: family members, friends, homes, livelihoods, careers, futures. And GOAL colleagues. Our humanitarians know that every day they go to work aid workers are not just considered legitimate targets, they are considered preferred targets. But this reality only makes them more determined to reach the one million Syrians GOAL provides with life-saving food, water, shelter and warmth.

So why are humanitarians considered preferred targets? It is not just because they are deemed criminals or terrorists. It is also because they work to prevent and obstruct the systemic depopulation of certain areas - ethnic cleansing, in some cases – something which has been shown to be a strategic objective of the regime in the Syrian conflict. Humanitarians tend to support the essential infrastructure of Syrian communities in opposition areas: hospitals, schools, bakeries, water pumping stations. Other essential locations in the community are also often targeted, such as transport hubs, marketplaces, and mosques.

If community members have nowhere to treat their sick, are afraid to send their children to school, have no reliable access to food and safe water, and nowhere to worship or shop safely, they will move on. They will become refugees, or move to another part of Syria. Well over four million have left the country already, while another eight million have moved internally.

The recent Munich Agreement for a Cessation of Hostilities in Syria did not give aid agencies working in northern Syria much reason for optimism. There was no mention of protecting civilians, or of protecting humanitarian workers. The humanitarian component of the agreement was solely focused on accessing besieged areas, which is, of course, a critical necessity.

However, the more recent joint statement, which did see a cessation of hostilities come into effect on Saturday, February 26th, is far more encouraging. The wording of that statement recognizes the dangers that humanitarian workers operate in, calling as it does for all parties to the cessation to agree “to allow humanitarian agencies rapid, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their operational control and allow immediate humanitarian assistance to reach all people in need”.

Although the cessation is on very shaky grounds, at least the agreement that delivered it is a step in the right direction for humanitarian workers supporting millions of civilians inside Syria who continue to bear the brunt of this crisis.

- Derek O’Rourke is GOAL’s Regional Security Advisor for the Middle East (incorporating Syria, Turkey and Iraq).

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