At a hospital in eastern Lebanon, Dr. Qassem al-Zayn, a soft-spoken Syrian in his fifties, broke into a big smile when he realized that we both spoke Russian. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. During my trips to opposition-controlled areas in Syria over the past two years, I’ve met Russian-speaking Syrians in almost every place. They always relished the opportunity to speak the language they learned years ago and reminisce about their education in the former Soviet Union. But their fond memories are colored by a feeling of betrayal because of Russia’s continued support for Bashar al-Assad’s government despite the crimes it is committing against its own people.
“It was terrible,” Dr. Qassem told me, describing the major offensive that Syrian government forces and Hezbollah fighters opened in mid-May against al-Qusayr, an opposition-controlled Syrian town that used to have about 30,000 residents. Dr. Qassem looked like any other doctor, dressed in a dark blue shirt and black pants, with his stethoscope still hanging around his neck after the morning round at the hospital. But the last three weeks had been a living nightmare for him and the patients he was trying to help.
“The government forces attacked us all the time, with artillery, mortars, jets, and surface-to-surface missiles,” he said. “On one day, I counted 27 air strikes.” The attacks killed and injured many fighters, but also civilians. A database maintained by opposition activists contains the names of more than 200 people killed during the two-week battle, almost half of them civilians.
Government jets and artillery appeared to intentionally strike hospitals and ad hoc clinics on several occasions, people I interviewed said. In early May, for example, a jet struck one of the ad hoc clinics in al-Qusayr, completely collapsing the building. In early June the Syrian air force struck a hospital in Yabroud, a nearby town, where many of the wounded from al-Qusayr were being treated. In both cases, hospital staff and local civilian council members said that they had received warnings or learned about the attacks beforehand.
Artillery and aerial attacks were not the only problem for those left in al-Qusayr. Government forces prevented humanitarian assistance, including medical supplies, from reaching the town. The hospital was short of antibiotics, oxygen and anesthetics, Dr. Qassem told me. “Sometimes we had to operate on patients without anesthetics,” he said. “They were screaming from the pain.”
As the fighting for al-Qusayr intensified, the United Kingdom proposed to other United Nations Security Council members a statement urging all those fighting in al-Qusayr to do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties and the Syrian government to allow “unimpeded access to impartial humanitarian actors, including UN agencies, to reach civilians trapped in Al-Qusayr.” Russia blocked the statement, however, until after the fighting was over.
After two weeks of fighting, the armed opposition groups, overwhelmed, decided to abandon the town. In a chaotic evacuation that followed, dozens of fighters, civilians and wounded died from lack of medical treatment and government attacks.
Crossing a highway proved particularly dangerous as government forces opened fire. “Nobody knows how many people were killed that night,” said Dr. Qassem, “It was impossible to tell in the dark and with all the gunfire and shelling around.” As possible lawful targets for government forces, opposition fighters might have been putting civilians at greater risk of attack when they decided to evacuate with the civilians and wounded. They say they left with the civilians to protect them.
Some of the lives lost during evacuation might have been saved if Russia, instead of blocking the Security Council statement, had pushed Syria to allow humanitarian actors to evacuate civilians and wounded.
Dr. Qassem was not the only Russian-speaking doctor in al-Qusayr. Two other doctors who fled with him spoke Russian as well. From previous trips to Syria, I also remember a doctor from Saraqeb, trained in Russia, who told us that Syrian government forces had burned down his field hospital when they stormed his town; a pharmacist from the Aleppo countryside, whose Russian wife and two children lived in safety in Russia while he was smuggling medical supplies to field hospitals in the area; a young doctor with a Russian diploma working endless shifts at a makeshift hospital near the Turkish border; a relief coordinator in a town in northern Aleppo, who used to own a chain of kebab restaurants in Russia; and many others.
All of these Russian-speakers were eternally grateful for the educational and business opportunities Russia had provided. Most of them insistently professed their love of Russian literature and the Russian people. But they could not understand why the Russian government continues to protect a regime that is committing such horrible violations.
It is indeed high time for Russia to condemn not only the opposition, but also the government when it commits grave violations, and to support a Security Council referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court, which would investigate violations by both sides. Russia should also stop providing the Syrian government with weapons that are being used to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. The long-planned peace talks in Geneva that Russia promotes, which might not even take place at this point, should not be used as an excuse for staying silent on the Syrian government’s horrific violations.
“The bombs causing the injuries I treat come from Russia,” Dr. Qassem said in his good, but partially forgotten Russian. “Why is Russia protecting this government that is killing so many civilians?” he asked me. “Russia used to be our friend, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.”