Civilians, hospitals and rescue workers in Aleppo have all been the target of government airstrikes over the past week, an escalation residents fear could lead to a government siege on rebel-held areas of the divided city.
Seven days of government airstrikes on opposition-held areas of the city have killed about 200 civilians, including 18 children, the last remaining pediatrician and another six medical personnel, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. One hospital has been completely destroyed, and other centers of daily life including a bakery, a neighborhood medical center and a mosque have all sustained significant damage.
“The government has been targeting the most vital areas in Aleppo,” said Khaled Khatib, an Aleppo-based media coordinator for the Syrian Civil Defence, a group of volunteer first-responders also known as the White Helmets.
“Today, it targeted a medical facility in al-Marjeh neighborhood. Two days ago it targeted al-Quds hospital, yesterday it targeted al-Amriyah bakery. It’s an attempt to destroy any lifelines residents have left.”
Government airstrikes on Wednesday targeted one of the last remaining hospitals in the opposition-held area of the city, killing at least 27 people, including five staff members and three children, according to the UK-based Observatory. The Aleppo branch of the White Helmets has put the death toll closer to 50.
Al-Quds Hospital, a medical center in the rebel-held neighborhood of Sukari supported by both Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross, was reduced to rubble by multiple missile strikes.
Medical staff at the hospital told Syria Deeply they were prepared for such attacks. Three months ago, prior to February’s landmark truce deal, they had decided to set up an alternative location to treat patients in case the government succeeded in its plans to encircle opposition-held areas of the city.
“When the airstrikes resumed last week, we decided to move our operations to the new location in five weeks, as we were unaware of how rapidly the violence would escalate,” said Waad al-Khateab, a nurse from the destroyed al-Quds Hospital. “We didn’t know the Assad forces would barbarically target and destroy one of the city’s most vital medical facilities just four days into the attacks.”
According to Khateab and the White Helmets, the five major remaining hospitals in Aleppo’s opposition neighborhoods have all been targeted by the government before.
“The buildings are frail and filled with bullet holes. If these hospitals, aside from al-Quds Hospital, become targets of government airstrikes, we will have no way of treating wounded civilians or chronic cases,” Khatib said.
Rescue workers in the city have also been targeted by government airstrikes over the past week. Five members of the White Helmets rescue team were killed on Monday night in direct airstrikes on their office in the town of Atareb, 16 miles (25 km) west of Aleppo.
Khatib said the attack was “the worst we’ve seen since our establishment. In less than 10 minutes we lost five members of our team, our center and our equipment.”
“So far, we have lost 115 volunteers with the Syrian Civil Defence since we formed in October 2014,” he added.
The steadily deteriorating situation in Syria’s northernmost city is “catastrophic,” according to Jan Egeland, head of the United Nation’s humanitarian task force for Syria.
“The stakes are so incredibly high because so many civilian lives are at stake, so many humanitarian health workers and relief workers are being bombed, killed, maimed at the moment, that the whole lifeline to millions of people is now also at stake,” he said on Thursday in Geneva.
“Doctors have been killed, health workers have been killed and medical workers have been blocked from coming to their patients.”
And as vital civilian infrastructure is steadily decimated, residents and aid workers fear they may soon be entirely cut off from the rest of the country, as government forces target the vital Castello highway, the main road connecting the eastern rebel-held half of the city to the outlying rural areas.
“It’s under constant airstrikes by the air force, and once this road is blocked, all access to the outside world will be blocked, too,” said Khatib.