NEW YORK — A United Nations system to prevent hospitals in Syria’s Idlib province from being bombed may have been used for the opposite purpose — to deliberately target them, the world body’s Aid Chief Mark Lowcock said on Tuesday.
Addressing the UN Security Council, Lowcock said that since the end of April some 26 healthcare facilities had been affected in northwestern Syria, the last major anti-regime rebel stronghold in the war-ravaged country.
Worryingly, some of these hospitals had shared their GPS locations via the UN’s ‘deconfliction system’, which sees the coordinates passed on to Russia, Turkey and the United States so that these sites are not targeted.
“It is appalling that these sites were hit in the first place. But hitting a facility whose coordinates were shared as part of the UN’s deconfliction system is simply intolerable,” said Lowcock, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
“A number of partners now feel that supplying geographical coordinates to be given to the warring parties effectively paints a target on their backs. Some have drawn the conclusion that hospital bombings are a deliberate tactic aimed at terrorising people,” he added.
Two of the affected facilities were in areas under Syrian regime control, Lowcock said. He did not blame any force for the strikes, but it is understood that only Russia and Syria carry out air strikes in the area.
“This whole episode raises deep questions about the deconfliction system. We are discussing this internally, and I will tell you what our conclusions are … next week,” Lowcock told the UN’s 15-nation body.
Russia, which backs Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad in the country's civil war, and Turkey, which supports some rebel forces, co-sponsored a de-escalation deal for northwest Syria that has been in place since 2018.
That pact has faltered and fighting has escalated in recent weeks, forcing some 330,000 civilians to flee northwards towards the Turkish border since May 1, said Lowcock. Some 300 people have been killed by Russian and Syrian air raids and shelling since late April, the UN says.
Germany’s UN ambassador, Christoph Heusgen, said attacks on 37 schools and colleges in Idlib, as well as strikes on hospitals, were “absolutely unacceptable” and constituted war crimes. Atrocities in Syria had become a “new normal”, he added.
Syria and Russia said the UN was using unreliable information.
Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said Lowcock had been fed “misleading information” by “liars” and that sites in question were not hospitals but rather “a room in a basement that is used to launch attacks and shell civilians and the Syrian Arab Army”.
“Syrians and allies do not target schools or hospitals," Ja’afari told the New York-based body.
Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, blamed militants for launching attacks from clinics and classrooms.
“It’s no secret to anybody that the fighters are making use of civilian infrastructure, hospitals and schools, for military aims and using people as human shields,” said Nebenzia.
“We decisively reject any accusation of indiscriminate strikes. We’re not carrying out attacks on civilians.”
Earlier on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was concerned by the escalating violence in northwestern Syria and urged Russia and Turkey to “stabilise the situation without delay.
“I am deeply concerned about the escalation of the fighting in Idlib, and the situation is especially dangerous, given the involvement of an increased number of actors,” Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, told reporters.
“Yet again, civilians are paying a horrific price. And let me underscore that, even in the fight against terrorism, there needs to be full compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.”
The dominant force in northwestern Syria is Hayet Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a former wing of the global terror franchise Al Qaeda. Others, including some with Turkish backing, also have a presence.
The war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people since it started in 2011, with millions more displaced.
“As I have said repeatedly, there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. It was clear at the start and it remains clear more than eight years later that the solution must be political,” Guterres told reporters.