After destroying six Aleppo medical facilities over the weekend, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has unveiled its strategy for the besieged city.
In other areas its policy has been summed up as “submit or starve.”
In Aleppo, it is “submit or die.”
Between Thursday and Saturday, the regime or its Russian ally bombed four hospitals, rebel-held Aleppo’s only blood bank and a forensic pathology lab, nearly all in the Al Sha’ar neighborhood, one of the biggest and poorest parts of east Aleppo.
The facilities, which included a children’s hospital and a maternity hospital, were not the biggest in the city, but served a population of some 75,000, said Dr. Muhammad al Mahmoud of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM). Some 12,000 people use the hospitals every month.
Now, after the physical damage to the buildings, the destruction of the oxygen generator in the children’s hospital and power generators in the other three, the four facilities are out of commission and for the time being beyond repair, said Dr. Usama Abu al Izz of the Syrian American Medical Association in Aleppo.
After destroying the hospitals, the regime set up sniper operations to prevent residents of Al Sha’ar from seeking medical care from the four hospitals elsewhere in rebel-held Aleppo, Mahmoud said. Because of the snipers and the continuing bombing of the city, the equipment that wasn’t destroyed cannot be moved, nor can doctors circulate, he said.
On Tuesday, the regime made clear that its aim for eastern Aleppo is to empty the entire population.
In text messages, the regime said it invited all citizens to join what it called “the national reconciliation” and to expel what it said was “foreign mercenaries” from their areas. It offered a “safe exit route” and temporary residence and promised to provide “all the requirements of life” to anyone who left the area.
While some may take up the offer, many will be wary because the so-called “foreign mercenaries” in most cases are the men of the family, who are defending their homes and expect to be killed if they surrender to government forces.
Rebel-held east Aleppo, with a population of at least 300,000 people, has been under siege since July 10, when the Russian air force, Iranian ground forces, and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia joined the regime in a major offensive to close the Kastello road, the last supply route to nearby farms that had supplied food to the population and to Turkey.
Throughout July, the regime or Russia has been bombarding the city almost daily with air to ground missiles and barrel bombs. But now, there is no way in or out, and 99 people have died trying since the siege began, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent monitoring organization.
Regime forces Tuesday advanced from their positions overlooking the road, seized the restaurant and entertainment complex which gave it its name, and occupied a portion of the actual road for the first time, the Aleppo Siege Media Center said.
The bombing of the medical facilities, along with the destruction of farm crops, schools, mosques and critical infrastructure add up to a deliberate strategy, according to James Le Mesurier, a close observer of the war.
“Hitting those places or rendering them unusable deprives the population of the means of survival, forcing them to make a choice of becoming refugees or displaced persons, or moving to the regime side,” said Le Mesurier, who heads Mayday, also known as the “White Helmets,” which supports rescue teams in most of the areas under government attack. He noted that the military operations of that sort are violations of international humanitarian law.
Aleppo isn’t the only place this is happening. In another bombing on Sunday, the regime or its Russian ally destroyed the hospital as well as an outdoor market in the town of Al Atarib, north of Aleppo near the Turkish border, killing 17. Of the 26 airstrikes, four hit the hospital, destroying the operating room.
Local civil defense workers monitored cockpit recordings as Syrian pilots speaking in Arabic took aim at two ambulances, which they also destroyed. And the White Helmets have monitored repeated instances in recent days of the regime using parachute-dropped thermo-baric bombs, cluster bombs and other munitions against civilian populations.
As the regime steps up its assault on Aleppo, major powers appear to be divided over what if anything to do about it. French UN ambassador François Delattre compared the destruction of Aleppo to that of Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia, from 1992-1995.
“The Security Council simply cannot accept such war crimes—yes, war crimes—to repeat again,” he told reporters. Calling for a “humanitarian truce,” he said Syria and its allies are “determined to besiege, starve and bomb Aleppo until they reach their military goal—eradicating the opposition.”
But at the State Department on Monday, spokesman John Kirby didn’t even mention the hospital destruction in Aleppo—nor did any reporter ask him for comment.
In fact, the department had language prepared should the question come up. But it was far more hedged than Delattre’s remarks.
It called the strikes “unconscionable”—but didn’t call them war crimes. It spoke of “reports” that five medical facilities had been hit and said the U.S. was “still trying to gather the facts of the circumstances of the weekend’s incidents,” when they’ve already been widely documented.
The U.S. government has classified all intelligence on airstrikes in Syria, so even weeks after major attacks occur, officials won’t say who was responsible because the incidents are still under study.
- Roy Gutman