David Nott interview: War surgeon reveals how healthcare workers are being 'systematically' targeted in Syria
'As he looks back over photos of his last visit to Aleppo, Syria, he pauses for a moment over a picture of two young doctors, smiling at the camera in their blue scrubs.
“He was an anaesthetist I knew. He was killed two weeks ago last year. An air-to-ground missile,” Dr Nott says, sad but matter-of-fact, pointing to one of the pair. “And he was killed not long before,” he says, indicating the other. “Doctors are targeted.”
In the grim logic that has taken hold among the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies, “healthcare is seen as a weapon”, he says. “You take out one doctor, you take out 10,000 people he or she can no longer care for.”
“Nearly nobody is reporting this, the direct attacks on healthcare and healthcare workers,” he told The Independent last month, citing figures from the NGO Physicians for Human Rights, which recorded 23 attacks on medical facilities in Syria in October and November last year – all but one by Syrian government or Russian forces.
The United Nations Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs also reported that 20 health facilities were struck or damaged by aerial bombs dropped by the Assad regime or its allies in October and November, and that many aid organisations have had to scale back or suspend their operations as a result of increasing attacks. In December, Amnesty International said Russian air strikes had killed hundreds of civilians – and hit medical facilities.
Aid workers believe the increasing frequency of such attacks suggest a strategy. Nott has long been convinced that both Syrian – and now Russian – forces are intentionally hitting hospitals: a view that is shared by the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, who accused the Russians of deliberately targeting civilians, hospitals and ambulances after speaking to Syrian civil defence workers in Southern Turkey earlier this month.
“The nature of the bombing has changed so completely in the past few months. It has to be the Russians,” Dr Nott says. “Russian jets fly very high up. Syrian jets fly lower, firing rockets and missiles. The Russian planes tend to be 10,000ft up and you don’t see it, you just see the weapon hitting the hospital,” he says.
“The British are fighting Isis – fair enough – but this is happening daily and has been forgotten about.”
In 2013, he called for humanitarian corridors to be set up to support populations trapped in conflict zones. Now, he says, a no-bombing zone is urgently needed over Aleppo and Idlib provinces, which the international community should set up, even if it meets with Russian opposition.
“It has to be achieved. Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘The humanitarian situation is so bad that this has to be achieved’. It is a systematic destruction of the healthcare system: a weapon of war which Syria and Russia are using at the moment. That has to stop.
Make it an area refugees could come back to, protected by a peacekeeping force – I’m sure Assad and Russia would not start attacking any Americans that were there.” '