Virginia Senator Tim Kaine greets Syrian doctors at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

Three Syrian doctors — two of them wearing surgical masks to hide their identities from Bashar al-Assad’s regime — testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday about the human toll that has accompanied six years of war in Syria.

One of them, Dr. Farida — referred to by a single first name in the hearing — described an instance when she was in the midst of performing a cesarean section when a missile struck the fourth floor of the hospital where she was operating in besieged Aleppo, causing the roof to collapse.

“The surgical staff had to flee the room, but the doctors couldn’t, because we were forced to clean debris out of the patient’s abdominal cavity. Thankfully we were able to save her life,” Dr. Farida said.

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

A report published Tuesday in the Lancet backs up Dr. Farida’s first-hand observation.

“The weaponisation of health care — a strategy of using people's need for health care as a weapon against them by violently depriving them of it — has translated into hundreds of health workers killed, hundreds more incarcerated or tortured, and hundreds of health facilities deliberately and systematically attacked,” it reads.

The three doctors — all of whom are members of the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation — were accompanied by David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, and Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of MercyCorps.

The five witnesses shared their first-hand accounts of the Syrian tragedy against a backdrop of looming foreign affairs budget, officially proposed by the Trump administration today. Details about those cuts were not available at the time of the hearing, but they are expected to include deep reductions to U.S. humanitarian aid. Senators repeatedly pressed the five witnesses to share their views of what a reduced U.S. humanitarian presence might mean for the Syrian response effort.

“This will be a tragedy for the people of Syria and for the region. They would translate into excruciating choices, not just for NGOs but for the people that we serve. It would also set back U.S. strategic leadership,” Miliband said.

One of the Syrian doctors present at the hearing offered a glimpse of what those choices tend to look like in his testimony.

“M3 was a small hospital, so we were often overwhelmed by the large number of patients and wounded arriving at our facility,” said Dr. Abdulkhalek, an opthamologist also referred to by single first name in the hearings. “With the overwhelming number of wounded civilians and the limited resources that were available to us, we had to face the unimaginable task of deciding who to save, and who to leave to die,” he said.

Miliband told senators that according to the head of U.N. operations in Syria, less than 1 percent of civilians under siege in Syria have been reached by humanitarian operations — “not because of inefficiency in the U.N., but because of deliberate blockage by the regime and in some cases by opposition forces,” he said.

The current effort by Kurdish and international coalition forces to capture the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’ self-declared capital, is likely to result in more displaced people and refugees. Miliband cited estimates that as many as 400,000 could be forced to flee the city.

“There can be no effective foreign policy without effective humanitarian policy,” he said.

Keny-Guyer updated senators on the Turkish government’s sudden and unexpected decision to revoke MercyCorps’ license to operate in Turkey or deliver cross-border assistance to Syria, forcing the organization to shut down its presence.

“We continue to seek a dialogue with Turkish officials so that we may resume our operations as soon as possible. We stand ready to correct any technical mistakes we might have made,” Keny-Guyer said.

Wednesday marked the six-year anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, which has claimed over 400,000 lives, by some estimates.

“Now is your chance to help protect and save the millions of Syrians still caught in the middle of this conflict,” said Dr. Abdulkhalek.

“Enforce international law; hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable; reform the U.N. aid system; make the protection of civilians and hospitals a priority. I ask you to be a voice for us. Don’t fail us again,” he said.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.