The aerial bombings of hospitals in rebel areas of Syria have long stood out as possible war crimes, so brazen that the leader of the United Nations ordered a special inquiry three months ago, raising hope of some accountability.
But with evidence accumulating that the Syrian government’s Russian allies are responsible for some of those bombings, the opposite appears to be happening.
The scope of the inquiry has so far been limited to just seven sites among the many targeted, according to an internal United Nations document seen by The New York Times.
At the same time, diplomats say Russia has been pressing the global organization’s leader, Secretary General António Guterres, not to release the conclusions of even this narrow inquiry.
And in what appears to be a new sign of impunity, one of the targets on the inquiry’s list, Kafr Nabl Surgical Hospital — an underground facility that Russian pilots bombed at least once before, according to a New York Times investigation — appears to have been bombed by the Russians again on Nov. 6.
The incidents under investigation include a possible bombing of Kafr Nabl in July, but not the attacks on Kafr Nabl and three other hospitals on May 5-6, which the Times investigation concluded had been carried out by Russia. All four hospitals also were on a list of sites that should not be attacked, known as a deconfliction list, sent by the United Nations to countries fighting in Syria, including Russia.
The Times used witness accounts and videos, time-coded cockpit recordings of Russian pilots, plane spotter logs and security camera footage from Kafr Nabl to trace the follow-up attack on Nov. 6 to Russia. The times that one pilot confirms strikes in the cockpit recordings match the times the hospital was hit.
Kafr Nabl, in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, was hit by three airstrikes and rendered temporarily out of service in the latest attack. No one was killed or wounded, according to a doctor there.
A spokesman for Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s United Nations ambassador, did not respond to the Times’s request for comment about accusations that Russia had sought to pressure Mr. Guterres to keep the inquiry confidential. The spokesman instead pointed to public comments made by Mr. Nebenzia on Sept. 16 when he objected to what he described as disinformation about the Syrian and Russian military campaign. Mr. Nebenzia also said the inquiry should examine the United Nations deconfliction list, suggesting it was flawed.
“Nobody denies that there are also civilians in Idlib, and that they live in dire conditions, some of them going through second or even third round of relocation. However, there is no other way to resolve their suffering, but to liberate this area from jihadists, who simply hold those civilians as a shield to protect their own positions,” Mr. Nebenzia said.
Russia is the most important ally of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and is largely responsible for helping his forces as they move to destroy the last vestiges of a Western-backed rebellion that had once threatened to topple him at the height of the war, now in its ninth year.
Since the end of April, Syria and Russia have been concentrating their firepower on northwest Syria, the remaining chunk of rebel-held territory.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said last Friday that at least 61 medical facilities in that area had been hit so far. He expressed alarm that “health facilities continue to be directly hit or significantly damaged” even as the United Nations panel is investigating.
Mr. Guterres established a board of inquiry on Aug. 1 after 10 members of the Security Council, including the United States, expressed alarm at the attacks on hospitals. Diplomats say Mr. Guterres was initially reluctant but relented, and is now facing pressure from Russia to keep the inquiry’s findings a secret.
Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Mr. Guterres, said the United Nations is still considering how to handle the inquiry’s findings, when asked if the conclusions would be made public.
It would not be the first time that the Russians have sought to suppress or at least discredit any international finding that impugns the war conduct of the Kremlin or its Syrian ally. Two years ago, for example, Russia blocked Western attempts to extend the life of a United Nations-backed panel investigating chemical weapons attacks in Syria, after it had found the Syrian government responsible for a lethal aerial assault in the village of Khan Sheikhoun, which would be a war crime. The Russians called the panel’s research methods shoddy and had earlier warned its leader that the conclusion was unacceptable.
Hospitals, clinics, doctors and other medical workers have long been considered exempt from attack in the rules of war, regardless of who they are treating. Provisions of the Geneva Conventions specify that the wounded and sick shall be cared for and respected. While such principles have been violated in many conflicts, human rights advocates say the transgressions in Syria have been especially egregious.
Any effort by Russia to suppress the hospital bombing inquiry, if successful, would extend the Kremlin’s record of blocking or impeding action at the United Nations that the Russians deem harmful to Mr. al-Assad’s side.
Russia has vetoed 13 Security Council resolutions calling for action on Syria. In September, Russia blocked a demand for a cease-fire in the northwest of the country, the same area the Russian Air Force is currently bombing.
Rights groups have expressed hope that the United Nations investigation of the hospital bombings would at least provide unassailable information that would point to who had carried them out. But some expressed dismay that the inquiry is so limited.
Susannah Sirkin, director of policy at Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group that monitors attacks on medical facilities, said her organization was “gravely concerned that the Secretary-General’s initiative may lack the depth or breadth to effectively answer why civilian facilities were bombed, who was responsible, and how to prevent such attacks in the future.”
Others are pressing Mr. Guterres to ignore any attempts to suppress the findings.
“The victims, their families, and the world at large have a right to know the facts,” said Louis Charbonneau, the United Nations director at Human Rights Watch. “Keeping silent will only embolden those responsible for war crimes in Syria.”
Diplomats say they expect the inquiry’s final report to be finished by the end of the year.
Reporting was contributed by Christiaan Triebert, Evan Hill, Dmitriy Khavin, Malachy Browne, Alexandra Koroleva and Abeer Pamuk.