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FRANCE 24’s international affairs commentator Douglas Herbert gives his take on the daily headlines, from Europe’s migrant crisis to the U.S. presidential election, with an eye on Kremlin intrigue.

Latest update : 2016-02-17

Putin in Syria: Bombing his way to peace

© France 24

"We'll whack them, even in the outhouse." Vladimir Putin's long-ago warning to Chechen "terrorists" now applies to anyone who stands in President Bashar al-Assad's way in Syria. Among those who are being "whacked": doctors and nurses.

A front-page headline in a New York daily a few months back rammed home the disparity between the allegations by over 50 women that Bill Cosby had sexually assaulted them, and the Hollywood star's categorical denial of any wrongdoing.

"HE SAID", began the skewering headline, in large-font capitals. It was followed by a long series of "She saids", running to the bottom of the page, in increasingly smaller letters.

We're seeing the same gaping disparity in Russia's breezy dismissal this week of accusations that it is abetting the spate of deadly attacks against civilian targets in northern Syria. The targets have ranged from hospitals and schools sheltering refugees, to open-air markets and residential areas.

Russia's categorical denial is the "He said" in this lopsided equation. Aid organisations, rights groups, rescue workers, doctors, nurses, fleeing civilians, eyewitness accounts, activists, think-tank experts and coalition military officials are among the numerous "She saids".

What they're saying differs in the details. But it adds up to the same conclusion: In the name of bolstering its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and boosting its own geopolitical street cred, Russia is riding roughshod over international law banning the deliberate targeting of civilians in times of war.

War crimes?

Many of these vocal critics - including top officials at Doctors Without Borders, which boasts a significant presence in Syria - say Putin's fighter pilots may be knowingly committing war crimes.

The United Nations itself is refraining, for now, from joining the chorus of war crimes accusers, pending a more thorough investigation. But its secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, leaves little doubt that he harbours strong suspicions of Russia's responsibility when he speaks of blatant violations of international conventions.

Syrian-based aid workers affiliated with the World Health Organization, in a document obtained by Buzzfeed News, cite an "unprecedented increase in the number of attacks on healthcare [facilities] in one single day".

The aid workers tallied attacks on seven hospitals in three provinces: three in Idlib and two in neighbouring Aleppo, in the north of Syria, and two more facilities in Dera'a in the south. Doctors Without Borders reported seven confirmed dead and eight "disappeared" at one of the facilities it sponsors in Idlib.

Aid workers said the attack came in staggered strikes - suggesting that those behind the bombardment weren't simply out to destroy the facility itself, but also to target rescue workers who came to the aid of screaming children and other patients after the initial hit.

Doctors = Criminals

This would gel perfectly with the brutal treatment meted out to medical personnel by the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

Doctors Without Borders put it bluntly when it said this week that doctors and nurses who operate in conflict zones controlled by the opposition are regarded as criminals by the regime.

Since the outset of the conflict in 2011, by several accounts, Assad's police have, as a matter of policy, detained, tortured and executed doctors whose only crime was to treat wounded from "the other side" - meaning anyone opposed to the Assad regime.

Respecting the Hippocratic Oath, in other words, is a crime punishable by death in Assad's Syria.

For this reason, among others, as of last November, some 95% of Aleppo's doctors had either fled or been killed over the course of this conflict. There are probably even fewer left today as fierce fighting engulfs the province.

Those that do stay behind - at great risk to their lives - are left to fend for themselves in a siege environment, with little or no access to equipment or bases from which to operate.

It is estimated that after Monday's round of hospital attacks alone, tens of thousands of civilians have been left without access to medical care or, with the destruction of schools, education.

Damning statistics

One can easily see the diabolical logic in bombing hospitals: aside from making it all but impossible for doctors to exercise their profession, or civilians to get life-saving care, you also deny treatment to wounded opposition fighters.

Knowing you won't get any care if you're injured in fighting is clearly a disincentive against staying on to fight another day.

And yes, Syria and Russia's protestations aside, they are responsible for the overwhelming brunt of attacks on medical facilities over the course of the Syrian conflict.

Russia's contribution to the devastation is still lower than Assad's, given its late entry into the conflict. But since late last year, its fighter planes have been busy playing catch-up, with apparently indiscriminate targeting of any object - civilian or military - that poses an obstacle to Assad.

Physicians for Human Rights, a non-partisan group that has tracked attacks on Syrian infrastructure, has quantified the destruction, as well as who it believes is responsible. It has tallied 336 attacks on medical facilities, resulting in the deaths of 697 healthcare workers.

But here's the eyebrow-raising statistic: some 285 of those attacks have been perpetrated by Syrian forces. Russian forces are responsible for 12, and "Russian or Syrian" forces, 8. The group found only one instance of an attack by the US-led coalition - in the far east of the country, where the Islamic State (IS) group is known to operate.

Which raises an important point. Russian officials have suggested that the US-led coalition was behind at least one hospital attack in northern Syria - an assertion the US has refuted as groundless, pointing out that the area in question is not one where coalition forces operate. And why would they? It is not, after all, an area in which the  IS group has captured territory, and the stated objective of the coalition campaign is to degrade and destroy the IS group.

Even as they lash out at critics who accuse them of potential war crimes, Putin and Assad are crowing about their battle plan. They have made no qualms about their goal of terminating "terrorists" wherever they may lurk, especially in the northern rebel bastions around Aleppo, which is now in a tightening chokehold.

Assad has struck a swaggering, triumphalist tone, insisting he's not subject to the Munich agreement struck last week calling for a "cessation of hostilities" so long as there are still "terrorists" in his midst. His cognitive disconnect from reality appears almost total when he speaks of recapturing all of Syria.

Imperial hubris

Russia, meanwhile, is feeding the Frankenstein's monster that it has helped resuscitate - not out of any love for the man himself, but because such is the price Putin thinks he needs to pay to remain relevant on the world stage, international law be damned.

Under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, wounded soldiers and prisoners of war, along with civilians, the elderly and pregnant women are supposed to be granted special protections from the dangers arising from war

But Putin has made it clear, through his unrepentant flouting of international law, that his imperial hubris takes precedence over playing by global rules.

The writ of the Geneva Conventions ends where Putin's geopolitical score-settling begins.

There are no angels in this conflict, and blame can be apportioned all around. But Putin's reckless belligerence in Syria brings added calamity to a chaotic war that is already as dire as they come.

 

 

By Douglas HERBERT

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