A mid some of the most intense fighting since the start of the conflict, the Kremlin and the Syrian government remained adamant: they had never targeted hospitals. Moscow spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no “proof” of such allegations, while President Bashar al-Assad stressed that his government had no “policy to destroy hospitals or schools”. Now a new report looking at how the Assad regime and its allies retook the city of Aleppo repudiates just that, using evidence ranging from satellite imagery to security camera footage, photographs, witness statements, and Russian television.
The authors of ‘Breaking Aleppo’, which was produced by the Washington-based Atlantic Council, note that the high number of verified airstrikes on eastern Aleppo hospitals or medical facilities between June and December 2016 (73 according to the Syrian American Medical Society), the government’s intimate knowledge of the area and the repeated confiscation of medical supplies from aid convoys suggest “that the Assad government and its allies, including Russia, did indeed have a policy of targeting Syria’s hospitals”. Such a policy would constitute a war crime under international law.
“Hospitals were the only window of life during the siege, they were destroyed completely,” Abdul Kafi al-Hamdo, an activist and teacher who lived through the siege on the eastern part of the city, told The World Weekly. Looking back at the time he left eastern Aleppo, he said: “Finally they gave us only two choices: either deaths by bombs or to be displaced… We decided to give our children another chance of life.”
Roughly two months after the fall of Aleppo to the regime, the report is more than just an exercise in history as President Assad and his allies continue to depict the war as one against “terrorists” rather than a mainstream opposition. In Aleppo and elsewhere this PR campaign has involved “re-branding… civilians as legitimate targets”, the report argues. Overall, the authors speak of a “separate disinformation campaign, aimed at distracting attention from events on the ground by focusing on discrediting, and silencing, the ones who were reporting them”.
The grand strategy to capture Aleppo, then the opposition’s most important urban stronghold, also included the use of incendiary munitions and chemical weapons. Human Rights Watch this week said Syrian government forces had conducted “coordinated chemical attacks” on opposition-held parts of the city, stating that government helicopters dropped chlorine in residential areas on at least eight different occasions between mid-November and mid-December, killing at least nine civilians and injuring 200 people. This happened despite a 2013 agreement brokered by the US and Russia ordering Damascus to get rid of its chemical weapons stockpile.
The Atlantic Council concludes that its “findings are a sound rebuttal to the regime coalition’s deliberate obfuscation and denials over what happened” in Aleppo.
For Mr. al-Hamdo, Aleppo during the siege was a city of death and horror, but also “the city of freedom”.