July 31, 2016

Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?

Video: The 'Andan city hospital has been withdrawn from service after it was targeted by Russian aircraft yesterday evening. 

I originally titled this piece (I often change titles as I develop my articles) "Russian and Syrian aircraft targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?" As I thought of the Syrian civil war that has been raging since March 2011, I recall numerous occasions when Syrian armed forces, including the Syrian Air Force, deliberately targeted civilian targets, targets normally proscribed by professional armed forces - hospitals, mosques, bakeries, markets, and schools.

As I was beginning to record some thoughts, I remembered the incident in October 2015 in which a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship mistakenly attacked a hospital operated by the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Konduz, Afghanistan. Remember the reaction? MSF and a host of other international organizations normally hostile to the United States and its allies immediately labeled it a deliberate attack as well as a war crime, and demanded the "perpetrators" be brought to justice.

The international community demanded an accounting by the Americans. The irresponsible claims by MSF of a deliberate attack were unnecessary - the United States holds its troops accountable for their actions. The Air Force conducted a thorough review, admitted where mistakes were made and reprimanded those responsible.

I am not sensing anything approaching that same level of international outrage at the obvious systematic, deliberate attacks on Syrian medical facilities. Why not? Because most observers, including me, believe it is a waste of time. The Syrian Air Force has so routinely and blatantly violated international law and the laws of warfare that it has become the norm, and with that, accepted. Trying to hold this regime of thugs and liars accountable is useless.

Unfortunately, the Russians have not only continued the attacks on hospitals, they have increased the number - and the lethality. It should come as no surprise that the Russian Air Force is exponentially more capable and effective than the Syrian Air Force. That translates to more civilian casualties, and the loss of access to medical care for hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians.

According to Amnesty International, the recent attack (shown in the video) follows attacks on four hospitals and a blood bank in eastern Aleppo city a week ago. Some facilities have been hit repeatedly to ensure they are no longer capable of providing services to the population.

Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International: "Deliberate attacks on hospitals and medical facilities are serious violations of the laws of war and can never be justified. Hospitals, which have special protection under international humanitarian law, should be safe places for mothers, new-born infants and medical workers – even in the midst of a brutal prolonged conflict."

Another group, Physicians for Human Rights, tracks attacks on health care facilities and care providers in Syria. Before the attack shown in the video, the group claims that 373 medical facilities have been attacked and 750 medical personnel killed. While some of these can be attributed to fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and other groups opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Asad, the vast majority of them have been attributed to the Syrian government forces and their allies. "Allies" in this case means the Russian Air Force.

As I was about to post this, this came across Twitter, from an excellent source. Three more Syrian medical facilities were targeted by the Russian Air Force today.

These attacks on medical facilities are war crimes, and are codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols. The conventions also allow that medical facilities that are being used for military purposes (not including treating military personnel) lose their protected status. That does not appear to be the case here - too many facilities appear to have been deliberately targeted, first by the Syrians, and now by the Russians.

This puts the Obama Administration and Secretary of State John Kerry in an untenable position, to put it mildly. Both the President and the Secretary are pushing for increased cooperation with the Russians in Syria, to include exchange of intelligence information on ISIS and other designated terrorist groups, followed by coordinated targeting of these groups by the Russian Air Force and aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition. Kerry's proposal also allows for the possibility of "integrated missions" between the Russians and the coalition.

Many senior U.S. Department officials, military officers and State Department personnel were against much of the intelligence and technical capability sharing aspects of the proposed arrangement with the Russians. Their arguments have held little sway with either Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of Secretary Kerry - they want a deal. For more on the Kerry proposal, see my article: Kerry - Lavrov talks in Moscow on Syria - why the secrecy?

Secretary Kerry, are you still in favor of closer cooperation with a country whose air force is blatantly and systematically violating international law? Do you want to make agreements potentially putting American and coalition pilots in a position of conducting "integrated operations" (the correct term is combined operations) with armed forces who bomb hospitals and other civilian targets?

Secretary Kerry, when you sold the Iran nuclear deal to the country, you warned against being on the "wrong side of history." Now you want to deal with probable war criminals. Just what side of history do you want to be on?