Inside Assad’s Killing Fields

Wall Street Journal, 27/9.

Dar al-Shifa hospital in the al-Sha’ar neighborhood of Aleppo is one of two large facilities serving the fighters of the Free Syrian Army here. The hospital also treats civilians in FSA-controlled areas. On Sept. 18, Dar al-Shifa came under attack by the Syrian air force. I was in the hospital at the time and witnessed the bombing.
Attacks like the one on Dar al-Shifa aren’t unusual. Syrian rebels now control roughly 70% of Aleppo, this country’s largest city, with a population of 2.3 million. The Assad regime is fighting back through indiscriminate air attacks on rebel-held districts.

President Bashar Assad succeeded this summer in crushing a rebel attempt to bring the fighting to Damascus, where his regime sits. But rebels remain largely in control of the Idlib and Aleppo governorates near Turkey. The city of Aleppo hangs in the balance, and Assad is throwing substantial resources into maintaining as much control there as possible. His tactics are proving disastrous for the city’s civilian population.

The day before the attack on the hospital, I had entered Syria illegally over the Turkish border. My fixer and I met at a coffeehouse opposite the hospital with two doctors who worked there. I will call them Dr. Amin and Dr. Maher to preserve their anonymity. Dr. Amin, a native of the Syrian city Daraa, returned from work in Saudi Arabia at the start of the uprising to volunteer in Dar al-Shifa. Dr. Maher is from Damascus.

.An elderly waiter brought coffee, and we spoke for a few minutes. Then we went into the hospital, where the staff was in the closing stages of treating around 50 victims of aerial bombing. Most were civilians, with a few young men wearing the camouflage of the FSA. Orderlies were washing a pool of blood on the floor into the drains. A man whose fingers had been sheared off by a bomb fragment was receiving first-aid treatment. Another man, very old and badly wounded, was being wheeled on a trolley, hooked up to an oxygen tank.

The atmosphere was calm, somber. Then everything changed. There were sudden shouts from outside. Then a man rushed in from the street, shouting “Tiyara [airplane]!Tiyara!”
There was a rush for the narrow staircase leading to the basement. Then came the earsplitting roar of a jet engine. It felt like the aircraft was flying a few feet above the hospital’s roof. An instant later, an enormous explosion sent rubble and dust pouring into the hospital reception area. We followed the others down to the basement.

It was narrow and packed, the air thin and full of dust. Everyone expected the fighter jet to make another run. We were surrounded by the hospital staff, the mostly female relatives of the wounded, and their small children. We heard other explosions, still close but not on top of us. If the plane scored a direct hit, the basement would offer entombment rather than shelter.
About a minute passed. Dr. Maher was standing on the stairs. He began to chant a prayer. Several voices joined in. The crying of a small child held in her mother’s arms punctuated the prayer. Two more explosions, farther away. Then the lights in the basement went out. Dr. Maher turned on a flashlight and continued his chant. The atmosphere was eerie: the packed basement, the darkness, the sounds of Muslim prayer and the single point of the flashlight illuminating the face of the young man, in his white coat and surgical mask.
After five more tense minutes, the sense of danger ebbed. If there was going to be another bombing run, it would have happened by now. There were shouts from above and we began to climb the stairs. My fixer, Ahmed, grabbed my arm: “Let’s get out of here, come on.” We ran outside to the road.
The bomb had exploded about 10 yards from the hospital entrance. The road was covered with rubble, disoriented people were everywhere. We ran about 30 yards to our car. The windshield was shattered, the door punched in. We piled in and left the area.
We met up again by chance a few days later with Dr. Maher and Dr. Amin at the FSA hospital in the town of Azaz, not far from Aleppo. Dr. Maher said that the old waiter who had served us coffee before we entered the hospital was one of those killed by the bomb. Dr. Maher wasn’t sure how many others died—there is such a stream of Aleppo casualties in the hospital that tallying who was injured or killed in which particular raid is difficult.
The attack had been carried out by a single jet, invulnerable because of the FSA’s lack of antiaircraft weapons, much less an aerial capacity of its own. The other explosions we’d heard were of rockets fired by the plane as it made its second run over the hospital.
The attack on Dar al-Shifa was a single episode in a civil war in which a dictatorial regime is employing the full weight of its modern military capacity against its own people. The regime’s aerial bombings appear designed not so much to achieve a military end as to demoralize civilians who either support the rebels or might be tempted to.
“We’ve no antibiotics, short of skilled staff, no capacity for surgery,” Dr. Maher told me when we met in Azaz. “But we don’t need medicine. We need antiaircraft weapons.”

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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1 Response to Inside Assad’s Killing Fields

  1. Jonathan Karmi says:

    President Obama has refused to countenance a no-fly zone over Syria which would protect civilians from such bombing raids. It sounds like you were fairly close to losing your life courtesy of President Obama. And we trust him to get the even bigger decisions right over Iran ?!

    Anyway, thank God you got out alive.

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