Doctors describe horrific conditions in war-torn Syria

By Richard Lardner, Associated Press | Posted - Mar. 15, 2017 at 3:20 p.m.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Doctors who risked their lives working in Syrian hospitals described horrific conditions in the war-torn country and pleaded with U.S. lawmakers to protect and save millions of people from an escalating humanitarian crisis.

They testified Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the sixth anniversary of Syria's bitter civil war, which has killed more than 400,000 people, displaced millions of others, and contributed to Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II.

A doctor identified only as Farida told the committee she was an obstetrician in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, where there were body parts scattered in the streets and "blood everywhere." For security reasons, she used only a single name and wore a medical mask covering her mouth and nose. She left Aleppo in December.

"Throughout the past six years, I have witnessed unspeakable horrors," Farida said. She said her unit in the hospital, known as M2, was subjected to a "daily barrage" of rockets, barrel bombs and cluster munitions.

"A hospital was the most dangerous place in Aleppo," she said.

An ophthamologist identified only as Abdulkhalek, who also wore a surgical mask, said they feared reprisal from the Syrian government and also worried their relatives might be punished if they were identified.

Abdulkhalek was director of the M3 hospital in Aleppo when the facility was attacked in December with chlorine bombs. They survived by fleeing to an inner room, locking the door and covering their faces. But he said many other people died.

"These chlorine attacks occurred after repeated attempts by the (Syrian) regime and its allies to destroy the hospital using barrel bombs and cluster munitions had failed," Abdulkhalek said. "Instead, they resorted to chemical attacks to drive us out."

The civil war in Syria began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule but quickly descended into a full-blown civil war. The chaos allowed al-Qaida and later the Islamic State group room to grow into a global terror threat.

U.S. lawmakers have accused the Assad government of war crimes and even genocide as the number of people killed during the violence in Syria continues to mount. Russia, with its massive air power, and Iran, with thousands of Shiite militiamen in Syria, helped turn the war indisputably in Assad's favor.

Russia's tactics in Syria also contributed to the frosty relations between Washington and Moscow that President Donald Trump has said he wants to repair. Despite its public pronouncements, Russia has done little to counter the Islamic State but instead has bolstered Assad, its ally.

Retired Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove said during congressional testimony last year that Russia and Assad were using migration as a weapon to overwhelm European support structures and break the West's resolve. Breedlove, at the time the top officer at U.S. European Command, cited the use of barrel bombs, which are unguided weapons and have no military value, against civilians in Syria. The only purpose of these indiscriminate attacks, Breedlove said, is to terrorize Syrian citizens and "get them on the road" and make them problems for other countries.

"Russia has participated in war crimes," said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. "They have to be held accountable."

Cardin and other Democrats on the committee seized on the crisis in Syria to highlight their objections to the deep reductions in U.S. foreign aid spending envisioned by the Trump administration in its budget for the 2018 fiscal year. The cuts, which could be as much as 37 percent, would make it more difficult for the U.S. to provide and support humanitarian assistance in Syria, they said.

"I am concerned that in the midst of listening to all of the comments of comfort and solidarity and succor that the reality is that it means nothing if we're going to have a 37 percent cut in our budget," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.


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Richard Lardner


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