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'A familiar tactic': Hospitals bear brunt of Syrian barrel bombs in Idlib

Hospital coordinates had been given to all parties to avoid being targeted by Syrian and Russian air strikes, NGOs claim
Wounded civilians receive treatment in a hospital dug deep underground in Idlib to protect medical staff and patients from Syrian government and Russian air strikes (AFP)

GAZIANTEP, Turkey - On Saturday afternoon, Tahsen al-Ese was walking down the corridor of Has hospital in the Idlib countryside. 

Like doctors in other remaining medical facilities in the area, he was expecting an influx of wounded civilians from neighbouring villages, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces began a bombing campaign on Idlib. 

But as Ese walked down the corridor, the earth began to shake. Two barrel bombs dropped by government helicopters had hit the hospital. 

"It came out of the blue. The whole hospital shook like an earthquake. The sound from the bomb left me dazed with my ears ringing for several minutes," Ese told Middle East Eye. 

"I was stuck under rocks alongside two other colleagues. We were lucky to survive the attack, and luckily no one was killed." 

Battle for Idlib: Civilians 'have nowhere to go’ as air strikes pound hospitals
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Ese's experience is nothing new. Healthcare facilities have once again borne the brunt of a renewed Syrian government offensive as Assad's forces make a final push to take control of Idlib. 

In the last week, Russian and Syrian government planes have targeted at least four hospitals in Idlib, according to NGOs supporting medical facilities based in northwest Syria. 

The targeting of medical facilities means critically injured patients now have to travel further away to receive urgent medical care and often succumb to their injuries and die on their way to the hospital. 

Familiar tactics by Russia and Syria 

For many long-time observers of the Syrian civil war, the bombardment of hospitals has become a "familiar tactic" used by the Syrian government and its Russian allies - breaking international law in the process. 

"The virtual elimination of medical facilities in opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria is proving devastating for the beleaguered civilian population, giving most of them no option but to flee and seek refuge elsewhere," Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International's UK crisis manager, told MEE. 

“It’s such a familiar tactic that it can only be part of a deliberate Syrian-Russian military strategy, one carried out because those ordering the attacks feel they’ll never be punished for these atrocities.

“There’s no excuse for a government that deliberately prevents people from accessing medical care. There’s no excuse for deliberately targeting hospital after hospital."

Has hospital was hit by barrel bombs dropped from Syrian government helicopters (AFP)
Ahmed Mahmoud, Islamic Relief's Syria spokesperson, echoed Benedict's comments and described the targeting of hospitals as nothing but "deliberate".

"Four health facilities were targeted, including locations that have been shared to all parties to this crisis to avoid targeting and specific hits. Yet, again it was targeted, and among the casualties were doctors and medical staff," said Mahmoud, who visited Idlib last week. 

"The number of casualties is mainly women, children, and this is because of the specific targeting of specifically populated civilian areas," he added.

"Ambulances have also been targeted. Some casualties die before they reach the hospital, as it takes them longer to reach the hospitals, since their local medical facility was bombed out of commission."  

Despite the bombardment and expected devastation, medical staff in Idlib continue to take preventative measures to adapt to the new normal of medical facilities being bombed. 

Doctors operate on a patient in Idlib despite difficult conditions and lack of medical supplies (AFP)
Dr Khaled Ghani, who works at the main hospital in Ma'arrat al-Numan, said that his medical facility had been under "heavy pressure" to meet the needs of the injured. 

"We expected the attacks long before they began and took preventative measures to protect our facility," Ghani told MEE. 

"Some of the protective procedures we implemented include covering windows and putting walls of sandbags on all our entrances to decrease the chance of damage from potential attacks. 

"But this hasn't prevented the regime and Russian jets from firing missiles on our other hospitals. We are doing what we can to minimise the casualties."

Mahmoud added that while many of the facilities were being forced to go underground, they were still targeted and damaged by Russian and Syrian air strikes.  

For now, Ghani continues to prepare for the inevitable as Russian air strikes intensify in northwest Syria. 

"We are doing our humanitarian duty only and will carry on regardless of the consequences that might occur." 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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