Syria: Medical Aid Paralyzed by Four Years of Conflict


AMMAN/NEW YORK—As the war in Syria enters its fifth year, desperately needed aid is failing to reach millions of people trapped by the conflict, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

The health system in Syria has been devastated by the ongoing conflict, and accessing essential medical treatment is almost impossible, either due to the lack of supplies and qualified medical staff, or because of attacks against medical structures. A large-scale international humanitarian effort is desperately needed in Syria, MSF said.

“Four years since the start of the Syrian conflict, the war continues to be characterized by acts of brutal violence that neither distinguish between civilians and combatants nor respect the protected status of health personnel and facilities,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, MSF’s international president. “It is unacceptable that humanitarian assistance is so limited when the death toll and the suffering of civilians has reached unbearable levels.”

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From an estimated 2,500 doctors who worked in the Syrian city of Aleppo, fewer than 100 work in hospitals still operating in the city. The rest have fled, become internally displaced, or have been kidnapped or killed.

“Our organization should be running some of the largest medical programs in its 44-year history,” said Liu.

The gradual deterioration of the security situation and the abduction of five staff members by the Islamic State group in January 2014 forced MSF to reduce its activities in Syria.

“Not only did this serious incident precipitate the closure of health facilities in Islamic State-controlled areas, it also meant that most of MSF’s international medical staff could no longer work in the country, as we could no longer trust that our teams would not be harmed,” said Liu.

In addition to withdrawing from Islamic State-controlled areas following the five-month detention of its staff, MSF has to-date been unsuccessful in opening medical projects in areas under government control.

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MSF continues to operate six medical structures in the country. The organization has also established support networks for more than 100 medical facilities inside government and non-government controlled areas. These networks allow dedicated Syrian medical staff to provide a minimum level of health care to populations trapped by the conflict, often in extremely hazardous conditions. This support, while valuable, is only possible in limited locations and falls far short of meeting the massive needs that medical teams inside Syria face.

The organization is prepared to talk to all actors involved in the conflict—as it has done successfully in numerous conflict settings—to ensure aid reaches civilians and to allow safe and effective medical activities in Syria. However, necessary guarantees have not been obtained to ensure that MSF patients and staff will not be taken or harmed.

“Until then, the only lifelines these people have are networks of medical doctors and civilian activists. We can and should do better for the people of Syria,” said Liu.

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Aleppo in April 2013.