Skip to Main Content
Printer Friendly Home > Library > Statements

Issue Brief: Attacks on Health in Syria

January 2018

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on January 11, 2018, Senators will examine U.S. policy in Syria. PHR’s issue brief highlights the need for a comprehensive U.S. strategy for Syria that prioritizes civilian protection and welfare as attacks on health and human suffering continue unabated. The Committee’s work to establish a standard of reporting and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria is critical and PHR encourages committee members to utilize this hearing to seek answers from the Trump administration on how it intends to deliver on these crucial elements.

Download the brief here >>

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, civilians have been deliberately targeted by all parties to the conflict, in direct violation of international humanitarian norms. One significant aspect of the Syrian government’s strategy to squelch its opposition has been the systematic attacks on civilian health, through bombing and shelling of health care facilities, killing of medical personnel, besiegement of civilian populations, and deliberate blocking or limiting of aid delivery to civilians, including stripping of medical supplies from humanitarian convoys. These separate attacks on health compound each other, generating a lethal context in which civilians suffer not only from the direct consequences of military warfare, but also from acute lack of adequate medical care and, over time, from starvation and malnutrition.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has systematically documented these gruesome assaults since the beginning of the conflict. 1Through October 2017, we corroborated 485 attacks on health care facilities. PHR’s reporting further concluded that interagency convoys provided humanitarian aid sufficient for only 17 percent of the besieged population, on average, from April through December 2016, in large part due to restrictions imposed by the Syrian government. 2PHR’s portrait of one particular town under besiegement – Madaya – demonstrated the preventable deaths and suffering among a civilian population reduced to eating grass and deprived of goods essential to survival as health care needs increased due to the siege. 3As of January 10, 2018, we have grave concerns for civilians suffering under deteriorating conditions in Eastern Ghouta, Hama, and Idlib.

A comprehensive U.S. strategy for Syria that prioritizes civilian protection and welfare is critical to securing full respect for the rights of individuals, the provision of basic services, and a legitimate peace process. Any reconstruction effort must take into account both the deliberate decimation of Syria’s health care infrastructure and the acute health care and humanitarian needs of the civilian population. Likewise, any political transition must ensure accountability for the criminal attacks on civilians that continue to this day.

As the fighting in Syria enters its eighth year, the pervasive breaches of fundamental international humanitarian norms that protect the health and well-being of civilian populations in conflict must be stopped. The U.S. government has an obligation to use its influence, resources, and seat at the UN Security Council to ensure the following:

  • An immediate end to attacks on unlawful targets, including civilians and protected objects such as functioning hospitals, clinics, and ambulances;
  • An immediate end to any restrictions on humanitarian aid, ensuring that all people in need of aid receive it in an immediate, unhindered, and sustained manner;
  • An immediate end to sieges of civilian populations;
  • An increase in authorized funding for humanitarian assistance to ensure the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is able to increase direct cross-border delivery of critical supplies;
  • Support for credible justice initiatives to ensure that perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including attacks on health, are held accountable.

Senators should ask witnesses how the Trump administration intends to deliver on these crucial elements.

1 Physicians for Human Rights, “Anatomy of a Crisis: A Map of Attacks on Health Care in Syria,” accessed January 10, 2018,

2Physicians for Human Rights, “Access Denied: UN Aid Deliveries to Syria’s Besieged and Hard-to-Reach Areas,” March 2017,

3Physicians for Human Rights and the Syrian American Medical Society, “Madaya: Portrait of a Syrian Town Under Siege,” July 2016,

PHR Library