People gathering around the rubble of a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) near Maaret al-Numan, in Syria's northern province of Idlib, after the building was hit by suspected Russian air strikes
Paris (AFP) - More than 800 health workers have died in "acts of war crimes" in Syria since 2011, in hospital bombings, shootings, torture and executions perpetrated mainly by government-backed forces, researchers said Wednesday.
The Syrian government and its ally, Russia, have turned the violent withholding of healthcare into a weapon of war, according to an analysis published in The Lancet medical journal.
This "weaponisation" of healthcare, it said, "has translated into hundreds of health workers killed, hundreds more incarcerated or tortured and hundreds of health facilities deliberately and systematically attacked."
In the crosshairs, an estimated 15,000 doctors -- about half the pre-war number -- fled the country, leaving hundreds of thousands of civilians without access to basic care.
"The international community has left these violations of international humanitarian and human rights law largely unanswered," the authors of the report said.
It was compiled by experts from universities in Beirut, Britain and the United States, as well as the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and Multi-Aid Programs, an NGO.
The data they gathered showed that 782 health workers were killed from March 2011 to September last year.
Of the total, 247 (32 percent) were doctors, 176 (23 percent) nurses and 146 (19 percent) medics, according to Physicians for Human Rights, a nonprofit group.
The rest included pharmacists, medical students, ambulance workers and veterinarians who were added to the list because they were killed while treating people.
Shelling and bombing of hospitals and clinics accounted for 426 (55 percent) of deaths, the report said.
- 'Decimated' region -
Shootings of medical professionals followed with 180 deaths (23 percent), torture with 101 (13 percent) and executions with 61 (eight percent).
Since September 2016, at least 32 more lost their lives, "which brings the total number of health workers killed in acts of war crimes over the six years of the conflict to 814," the study said.
This was probably a gross underestimate, it added.
The war in Syria has killed at least 320,000 people and displaced millions in six years.
The evidence suggested that the Syrian government targeted medics as a strategy, and to an extent never before seen in war, the researchers said.
The majority of the attacks on health facilities, 94 percent, were the work of "the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia".
"With the military surge that began in late September 2015, when Russia joined Syrian government forces, 2016 marked the worst year of the conflict to date in terms of attacks on medical facilities," the study said.
The SAMS reported 194 verified attacks last year, an 89-percent increase from 2015.
Almost a third of Syrians now live in areas with no health workers whatsoever, and another third are in areas with insufficient care, the report said.
Nearly half of hospitals were reported to be damaged.
A case in point: the Kafr Zita Cave Hospital in Hama has been bombed 33 times since 2014, including six times so far this year. And M10, an underground hospital in Aleppo, was attacked 19 times in three years before it was razed in October 2016.
While the remaining doctors -- many of them students or juniors with little experience -- brave the storm, international leaders have taken "little action on bringing the perpetrators to justice", the authors said.
The Lancet, in an editorial, pointed to "grievous failings by the global health community and international governance."
It called on the World Health Organization to raise funds to prop up the health infrastructure and health workers in Syria, and to mobilise international support to resolve the humanitarian crisis.
"An entire region and its people have been decimated while the world has watched," the journal said. "Health and development will take decades to catch up."