Syria and Russia Spotlighted by UN Hospital Strike Probe

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres launched an investigation on Thursday into military strikes on hospitals and other civilian facilities in northwest Syria, amid growing fears that they were being deliberately targeted by the Syrian government and Russian forces. 

The probe will “investigate a series of incidents that have occurred in northwest Syria” since the signing of a “de-escalation” deal to staunch the conflict that was struck in September by Russia and Turkey, the UN said in a statement.

“I have decided to appoint a board of inquiry in relation to recent developments in premises and other entities that are supported by the UN or part of the UN efforts of de-escalation,” Guterres told reporters in New York.

“I believe that this inquiry can produce an important result, and I can guarantee that everything will be done to make sure that this board of inquiry acts with full objectivity, not to prove anything, but to simply say what the truth is.”

“The investigation will cover destruction of, or damage to facilities on the deconfliction list and UN-supported facilities in the area,” the UN chief’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said in a note to journalists.

Dujarric said the inquiry will “ascertain the facts of these incidents”. He urged parties to Syria’s conflict to cooperate with investigators, and said that more details about the probe would be released when it is “ready to start work”.

Guterres has been under mounting pressure to probe attacks on hospitals and other facilities in Syria that were hit after giving their GPS locations to the UN, which shared these coordinates with Russia, Turkey and the United States.

This so-called “deconfliction system” was designed to stop militaries operating in the area from striking hospitals and other civilian centres. But aid groups said Russia and Syria were using those coordinates to deliberately target their operations.

On Tuesday, two-thirds of the UN Security Council, including France, the US, and Britain, asked Guterres to investigate the spate of attacks on medical facilities in northwest Syria, which could constitute a war crime. Those three permanent members, together with Indonesia, Belgium, Germany, Kuwait, Peru, Poland, and the Dominican Republic, petitioned the UN chief over the lack of focus on attacks on the UN-supported facilities.

At least 14 UN-supported facilities had been “damaged or destroyed” in northwest Syria since the end of April, those countries said in the document, which is known as a demarche, or a letter of diplomatic protest. 

Russia and Syria have denied targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure, and questioned how the UN sources information. Damascus recently said that terrorists were using 119 Idlib hospitals to run military operations.

“I fully respect the rights of the Russian federation to disagree with me, as I also respect the position of ten other members of the Security Council that had the opposite opinion,” Guterres told reporters on Thursday. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, launched an assault on the last major rebel bastion three months ago. The UN says fighting has killed at least 450 people and sent 440,000 others fleeing from their homes.

Most of Idlib is held by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria. This latest round of fighting could be the final military showdown in Syria’s bloody, eight-year-old civil war, which has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced 12 million others. 

Idlib and nearby parts of the northwest were covered by a “de-escalation” deal to halt the conflict that was struck in September by Russia and Turkey, which backs some rebel groups in the area. 

But the deal was never fully implemented, after troops refused to pull back from a planned buffer zone. Fighting has escalated again in recent weeks, sending masses of refugees fleeing from conflict zones.

President Assad is trying to claw back control of Syria after peaceful protests in 2011 spiralled into a brutal civil war that saw him lose much of the country to a patchwork of armed religious hardliners and rebels.