The severity of Syria

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Why has the hope of Arab Spring turned into a bloodbath in Syria? Their uprising began nearly a year and a half ago. The youngish president there clings to power in the most brutal fashion — so far, at the cost of roughly 30,000 lives of his countrymen. His prime minister and a prominent general just defected. Disgusted soldiers are changing sides, on pain of death. But the young heir, raised by proud autocrats, simply orders more killing.

Why has the hope of Arab Spring turned into a bloodbath in Syria? Their uprising began nearly a year and a half ago. The youngish president there clings to power in the most brutal fashion — so far, at the cost of roughly 30,000 lives of his countrymen. His prime minister and a prominent general just defected. Disgusted soldiers are changing sides, on pain of death. But the young heir, raised by proud autocrats, simply orders more killing.

A Thumbnail Primer

Bashar al-Assad ascended to the “presidency” in 2000, upon the death of his dad, Hafez, who had ruled Syria since 1970. There have been no multi-party elections in Syria for 50 years. There is only the Ba’ath Party — all others are banned.

This cockamamie governance evolved from two decades of military coups, kicked off by “the Big One” in 1949, when the U.S. helped overthrow the fledgling democratic Syrian government, newly independent from France. The Assad family’s evolving tyranny hit the fan in 1982, when tens of thousands of citizens were massacred in Hama to quell a Sunni uprising. Hafez al-Assad’s kid brother, Rifaat, ran that operation.

And now? The International Red Cross declared the current Syrian uprising an all-out civil war last month. Over 14,000 civilians have been slain — many of them at protest demonstrations. And about that many armed combatants on both sides have died. Of note: nearly 1,000 Syrian children have been either killed or imprisoned.

The prisons are stuffed with another 30,000 suspected dissidents. A million and a half Syrians are internally displaced (with no international relief organizations nor press allowed to operate within Syrian boundaries). And nearly 300,000 Syrians have fled into surrounding states.

High-jacking Healthcare

These external refugees have been extensively interviewed by Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (who have set up clinics along Syria’s borders with Jordan, Kurdistan, Lebanon and Turkey. What has emerged are very consistent reports of a cynical pattern of war crimes.

Say you’ve been wounded in a protest demonstration when government troops were ordered to fire upon the peaceful marchers. You may even have been a curious bystander. It is widely known you cannot present your wounds at a hospital for emergency care. The hospitals are guarded and infiltrated with government security forces and you would be arrested and jailed, without treatment, as an insurgent.

Once in detention, medical care for presumed protesters is non-existent. Many are dying in prisons. Composite testimonies of patient-prisoners who have escaped into Jordan follows: “You cannot go to a hospital because they either amputate one of your limbs, or they take you to prison. … Wounds are left to rot. I was detained and went without treatment for shrapnel in the chest for seven months.”

After a street march has been attacked by Syrian soldiers, who are defecting to the rebel Free Army in increasing numbers, the injured try to avoid getting into an ambulance. “Any ambulance is targeted and shot at. Doctors who bravely treat us are arrested, or they rape his wife. … When the ambulances come, we send them away. They are not safe.”

Torture is also a daily routine for the “medically detained.” “Some guys were subject to the removal of their fingernails. Others were flogged until their backs were broken. … They make us take off our clothes and they spray us with water; then they electrocute the wet floor.”

Mobile, Underground Medicine

MSF has also succeeded in discreetly communicating, from a distance, with doctors in tightly closed-off Syria. This growing network of healers, at the risk of their lives, variously testified that “95 percent of the injured do not go to the public hospitals. They are treated in clandestine ‘field hospitals,’ where people of that neighborhood agree on a certain house to temporarily place the wounded.”

“What we do is, the patient is then blindfolded and taken to another location to be treated. Even the doctors do not know where these field hospitals are. We, too, are blindfolded.”

But the field hospitals are not fit for surgical operations — only the binding of wounds and the dreadful dilemma of triage. “We coordinate with the real hospital (for surgeries) in a clandestine way. Under a false name and mock medical report, we transport patients to be operated on ‘normally.’”

Blood transfusion services have also been taken over by the Ministry of Defense, as another means of identifying individuals participating in demonstrations. “A doctor now is considered more dangerous than those fighting in the Free Army. Many doctors are putting their lives in danger in order to fulfill their Hippocratic oath.”

Ethical Irony

But Bashar al-Assad is himself a physician — an ophthalmologist. The president has radically betrayed his Hippocratic Oath, his professional colleagues, and the healer’s contract with humanity. Bashar’s trampling of international humanitarian law will not soon be forgotten.

Sources: The British Medical Journal, Medecins Sans Frontieres

Albrecht is a San Antonio, N.M., resident. She has written global affairs digests for New Mexican newspapers and journals for 13 years. Find her column on the last Saturday of each month in El Defensor Chieftain.