The U.N. Helps Assad Bomb the Opposition: Foreign Policy


Tuesday 20 August 2019 | 0:1 AM Damascus Time

SyriaRussiarebels Syrian oppositionBashar Al AssadUnited Nations

  • The U.N. Helps Assad Bomb the Opposition: Foreign Policy


    For months, as part of its deconfliction program for the Syrian war, the United Nations has been sharing the GPS coordinates of health care facilities in rebel-held territory with the Russian government. The aim was to ensure Russia and its Syrian allies do not hit them by mistake.

    The system is not working. Indeed, it seems to be achieving the opposite of its ostensible goal. During the Syrian regime's recent offensive in Idlib, as many as 46 civilian facilities were reportedly attacked. The Syrian American Medical Society, a local partner of the U.N. in Idlib, reported that at least 14 medical facilities that were attacked in Idlib were on the U.N.’s list. The Russian and the Syrian governments, in other words, knew exactly where the facilities were when they bombed them.

    On July 30, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres authorized an inquiry to investigate who bombed the facilities, especially those supposedly under the international body’s protection. The organization should consider investigating whether its deconfliction program, as currently designed, serves any useful purpose at all. In the meantime, Russia and its allies will continue receiving information from the U.N. about opposition whereabouts.

    This was not the first time that identified facilities have been targeted. In March and April 2018, four such hospitals were attacked. Susannah Sirkin, the director of policy at Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based advocacy organization that has tracked attacks on medical infrastructure from the beginning of the war eight years ago, said it was clear the U.N.’s system was not working. “With this mechanism utterly failing, one would have to question the wisdom of anyone sharing the coordinates,” she said.

    Ahmad Dbeis, an official with the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from the United States, France, Germany, and other countries that helps run the rebel health care facilities, said that the decision to share their data was taken after much difficult consideration.

    “The idea of sharing the coordinates was completely rejected at first, in 2015, but after the Russians and the regime started to systematically target medical facilities in eastern Aleppo, everybody realized that they were already aware of the locations thanks to their spies,” he said. “So we thought we could share the coordinates and use this issue as legal and ethical evidence before international courts and organizations, proving the regime and the Russians deliberately hit medical facilities after obtaining their coordinates.”

    The relentless bombardment of Idlib recommenced on April 29 as the regime and its Russian allies attempt to reclaim the last rebel stronghold. Civilians and activists have had no option other than to hope the international community would come to their rescue. It didn’t. The decision to share the location of their health facilities with Russia through the U.N. was thus part of a strategy born of desperation: take the risk of being bombed, but at least expose the perpetrators.

    The strategy might have worked to the extent of focusing the attention of the U.N. Security Council on a humanitarian disaster that has been steadily unfolding. But not everyone affected willingly signed up for it. Yasser al-Samm, a surgeon at Maaret al-Numan central hospital, was reluctant to hand over coordinates, because it increased the chances of an attack, he said. He gave in after he was assured the hospital was protected. “We had been given guarantees that the hospital would not be hit,” he said. “But it was. I always knew it was a mistake.”

    The report is written by Anchal Vohra, for the Foreign Policy. 

    SyriaRussiarebels Syrian oppositionBashar Al AssadUnited Nations