The WHO's Orwellian relationship with Syria

The WHO's Orwellian relationship with Syria
5 min read
11 Jun, 2021
Opinion: The World Health Organization's continued co-operation with Assad's murderous regime is in direct contradiction with its humanitarian mandate, writes Mat Nashed.
A hospital is destroyed by an airstrike in Northeast Syria, 10 July, 2019. [Getty]

On 26 May, the World Health Organization (WHO) elected Syria's murderous regime to its executive board, sparking outrage from Syrian medics, relief workers, and activists. The WHO's decision epitomises a harrowing paradox that challenges the very fabric of truth, something akin to what happens in George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, 1984. 

In the book, Orwell introduces three slogans to encapsulate the nature of the make-believe fascist state of Oceania: "Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, and War is Peace." Orwell uses these slogans to broach the concept of doublethink - a term he invented to refer to the process of indoctrinating a person so that they accept two contradictory beliefs as correct.

Enter the WHO, which believes that Damascus will be an essential asset in shaping global health policy, even as it continues to commit atrocities against its own citizens and healthcare community, executing medics and bombing hospitals.

The WHO is nakedly endorsing a criminal regime by bringing Damascus into its orbit.  

"Activists and medics quickly stopped trusting the UN after they realised that their clinics and hospitals were being intentionally bombed"

The Syrian regime has an extensive resume of committing war crimes. In July 2012, it passed a new terrorism law that outlawed "anti-government activity." This law provided grounds to arrest, and even execute, medics for acts as harmless as disinfecting a fighter's wound or supplying medicine to clinics in rebel-held areas, according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

As a result, the regime has forcefully disappeared at least 3,329 medical professionals for upholding their humanitarian duty, most of whom end up in one of Syria's harrowing prisons. Of this number, about 84 have died from torture, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

What's more, an astounding 930 medical professionals have been killed in Syria since the start of the war. Most have died following the regime's deliberate airstrikes on medical facilities.  

In fact, according to the Violet Organization, which is just one of several rights groups monitoring attacks on medical facilities, at least 595 healthcare centres have been destroyed since Syria spiralled into civil war in late 2011.

In the past, hospitals in the rebel-held enclave of Idlib have tried sharing their coordinates with the UN – which would then disclose the locations to Moscow and Damascus - to avoid being hit. But activists and medics quickly stopped trusting the UN after they realised that their clinics and hospitals were being intentionally bombed. Medics in opposition areas began removing the red crescent emblem from their facilities to protect themselves.

All UN agencies made the same calculus, setting a dangerous precedent for the duration of the war. However, the WHO has bent over backwards to maintain friendly relations with Damascus, to the extent of blatantly violating its own humanitarian mandate.Early on in the conflict, the world's top health body allowed the Syrian regime to hijack its humanitarian response out of fear its operations would be terminated if it did not comply with government restrictions.

Just consider that the WHO has effectively subsidised Syria's Ministry of Defense - which controls the national blood bank - by buying millions of dollars worth of blood bags, transfusion equipment, and screening kits for blood-borne diseases such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV.

All of these supplies are denied to civilians in opposition-held areas, where health facilities are systematically bombed by aircraft commanded by the same Ministry of Defense or its Russian allies.

Throughout the war, the WHO has also been forced to rely on partners such as Al-Bustan, a front-NGO headed by Assad's cousin and war criminal Rami Makhlouf. To nobody's surprise, cronies like Makhlouf have seized the opportunity to embezzle WHO aid. 

Overall, the WHO has essentially failed to fulfil its humanitarian duty, while helping ministers and tycoons circumvent western sanctions. The global humanitarian response in Syria has thus incentivised the regime to continue its war against civilians and derive profit in the process.

"The WHO is nakedly endorsing a criminal regime by bringing Damascus into its orbit"

The Syrian regime continues to deprive northeast and northwest Syria of aid despite the desperate need for medicine and surgical equipment in those regions. Western ambassadors say that the northeast has witnessed a 40 per cent decline in medical relief since Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution in July 2020.

Before the resolution was vetoed, UN agencies were able to procure and transport large quantities of relief into the Northeast from Iraq, giving them an avenue to bypass regime restrictions.

The Syrian regime continues to consolidate remaining aid operations by pressuring Russia to veto the last UN cross-border resolution, which permits UN aid to reach more than four million beleaguered civilians in Idlib via Turkey.

Aid groups warn that terminating that resolution - which is up for renewal next month - would spawn an unthinkable humanitarian crisis. It could deprive more than four million people of food and medical aid.

UN agencies, like the WHO, still justify their operations in Damascus by claiming that aid trickles down to the most destitute. However, experts suspect that only 2-18 per cent of UN aid reaches needy Syrians, and rarely those most in need.

What is clear is that the Syrian regime has been awarded the task of safeguarding the health of its citizens, while it weaponises a humanitarian response to kill civilians and medical personnel. The WHO's Orwellian doublethink is plain for all to see.

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile.

Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.