A new report is warning the world not to focus too much on the Islamic State (IS), noting that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been bombing hospitals and civilian targets, a situation made worse recently by the arrival of Russian warplanes.
Russian airstrikes hit medical facilities at least 10 times during their first month of bombing in Syria, making matters even worse for doctors, nurses, and patients who have already endured repeated bombardment from Syrian government forces, according to a report from the non-profit group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
PHR said the Russian strikes, which began on September 30, included several in the vicinity of Aleppo, where 45 healthcare facilities have been hit in the past three years. According PHR, almost all of the city's doctors — 95 percent — have been killed, detained, or fled the area.
The group said it documented 329 attacks on Syrian medical facilities through October, leading to the deaths of 687 medical personnel across the country. It attributed 90 percent of those incidents to the Syrian government.
"Each attack, whether the bombing of a hospital or the detention and torture of a doctor for providing health care, is a war crime," said the report's authors.
Following bloody terror attacks claimed by IS in Paris, Beirut, and Egypt, where the militant group took responsibility for downing a Russian airliner, international attention has shifted heavily toward action against the militant group in Syria. Seizing on the common enemy shared by Syria's various factions and their international backers, Russia circulated a draft counter-terrorism resolution at the UN Security Council on Wednesday.
While Russia claims it has been bombing IS, according to a number of studies, including analysis carried out by the Carter Center, the vast majority of Russian strikes have hit opposition rebel groups.
'Its strategy is to bomb its citizens into submission.'
Stephen O'Brien, the UN's humanitarian coordinator, referenced the data gathered by PHR in a briefing to Security Council diplomats on Tuesday. He said that 16 recorded attacks on medical facilities in October was the highest toll in any one month since the start of Syrian civil war.
"Parties to the conflict must ensure respect for, and protection of, health facilities and patients under international humanitarian law," said O'Brien, who added that desperately needed medical supplies were being blocked from reaching those in need of assistance.
"The overall impact on the health situation has been devastating, with many civilians, particularly in areas not controlled by the Government, unable to access even the most basic medical care," said O'Brien.
According to UN figures, routine immunization coverage in Syria has fallen from 95 percent prior to the war to just 64 percent this year. PHR's report censured the Security Council, saying it remained "paralyzed by politics."
On Saturday, diplomats from 20 countries — including the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia — met in Vienna and emerged with a timeframe for talks between the opposition and the Assad regime, and eventual elections. No Syrians were present at the gathering, and questions lingered about who would be considered among the country's moderate opposition. It's expected that all sides would fight both IS and al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.
Watch the VICE News documentary Inside the Battle: Al Nusra-Al Qaeda in Syria:
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, France radically increased its airstrikes on IS positions in Raqqa, the militant group's de facto capital. Russia has also reportedly hit positions in the vicinity of the city in recent days.
PHR's report, which was completed prior to last week's attacks, raised concern that high profile assaults by IS in both Syria and abroad could shift attention from the Assad regime, which it called the principal perpetrator of attacks on civilians and medical facilities in Syria.
"While the self-declared Islamic State… has grabbed headlines with its exhibitionist violence, the Syrian government has systematically violated every international law aimed at protecting civilians," the group wrote. "Its strategy is to bomb its citizens into submission — destroying hospitals, markets, and mosques in order to punish the opposition and its supporters for their political views and make life unbearable outside of areas it controls."
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