Workshop Talks: Why allow Assad to kill the sick?

September 7, 2016

From the September-October 2016 issue of News & Letters

by Htun Lin

Over a year ago, where I work in healthcare, there were multiple patient suicides which could have been prevented had adequate access to mental healthcare been provided. The wife of one of these suicides said she felt her husband was abandoned by his HMO. We healthcare workers took a stand based on labor’s principle of solidarity to bring about changes.


Our strike demonstrated that human empathy, and not corporate marketing of health insurance, was fundamental to healthcare. There was a stark difference between our notion of healthcare for all and the corporate notion of “not everyone can be saved,” which they use to justify cost-cutting under the Affordable Care Act.

President Barack Obama agreed that, in our foreign policy, strategic priorities trump our humanitarian ideals, and that not everyone can be saved. That connects our actions to healthcare workers in Syria digging the wounded out of the rubble of capitalist war. According to Physicians for Human Rights, there have been over 375 bombing strikes against medical facilities in Syria since the revolution began in 2011, over 90% of them from the Syrian regime and its allies Russia and Iran.

According to Foreign Policy, “Despite devastating losses, the medical system serving Syria’s rebels and the remaining civilians in opposition areas has proved resilient, like the rebellion itself. From the idealistic uprising in 2011 to the dystopian violence of 2016, Syrian healthcare workers have found ways to survive, adapt, and treat those wounded in horrific fighting, as well as to deliver babies and treat ordinary illnesses. Dodging arrest and torture, then missiles and snipers, they have built a clandestine healthcare system out of the one their government destroyed.”

A journalist reporting from the devastated city of Aleppo, gripped by a months-long siege by the Syrian government, said two things happen when the regime targets hospitals and civilian areas: immediate casualties, then more death due to destruction of medical infrastructure. Bomber pilots hit a target, then come back to target rescue workers and healthcare personnel.

On Feb. 15, a 30-bed hospital in Ma’arat Al Numan, in Syria’s Idlib Province, was hit by four missiles. At least 11 people were killed including at least one child. Photo: Doctors Without Borders

The director of Physicians for Human Rights, Widney Brown, said, “When you hit these facilities multiple times, it is clearly a strategy by the Syrian government,” meant to demoralize a people. “When you target a hospital, you don’t just destroy that brick-and-mortar structure.  You destroy a safe place for people to get life-saving aid.  When you kill a doctor, you don’t just kill that one individual.  You actually kill all the people he or she would have saved.” These are “surgical strikes…hitting surgical wards,” in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.


Brown says, “Medical doctors are specifically targeted for detention, torture, and even murder by the Syrian government, to target those delivering aid to the wounded. Seven hundred and fifty have been killed in the last five years.  They are also being targeted because they also actually give eyewitness testimony to all the atrocities committed against civilians by the regime. When a doctor says a chemical weapon was used, it’s very incredibly damning.”

The Geneva Convention stipulates: “Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, shall under no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by all parties to the conflict.”

Doctors Without Borders is taking the Obama Administration to court for bombing their compound in Afghanistan despite warnings that it was a hospital full of civilian patients. They assert that war is no excuse for a state to pass off atrocities committed in the heat of military operations as unavoidable collateral damage.

Doctors of the Civilian Defense Commission in Syria sent an open letter to the UN, U.S. government and the world pleading for protection of hospitals from bombings conducted by President Assad of Syria and President Putin of Russia. Atrocities committed by Assad and Putin are war crimes in violation of the Geneva Convention. The doctors say that identifying Assad and Putin as war criminals with empty words is not enough. They are asking world leaders, why have you done nothing? Why have you abandoned us?

These doctors in Syria and Doctors Without Borders are challenging the dehumanization of capitalism—asking what does it mean to be a human being? What does solidarity across borders look like that can overcome this and protect the health of all?

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