AMMAN: Dozens of medical facilities in rebel-held northwestern Syria closed in protest on Monday after violent infighting between two rival opposition factions damaged a major regional hospital.
The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and 13 other medical organizations announced an immediate five-day suspension of non-emergency activities in all the facilities and hospitals they support inside opposition-held, northern Syria in a press release posted online on Monday.
“Recent unprecedented attacks on medical facilities clearly reflect a lack of respect and appreciation for the medical efforts underway in northern Syria,” the official SAMS statement read.
Major infighting broke out in opposition-held Idlib province between the rival rebel coalitions Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and Jabhat Tahrir Souria (JTS) on Sunday and spilled over onto the grounds of a SAMS-supported hospital in the Idlib city of Maarat a-Numan.
HTS, an alliance of hardline rebels spearheaded by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, attacked positions held by JTS, a recently formed merger of Islamist factions Ahrar a-Sham and Harakat Nour e-Din a-Zinki, on the outskirts of Maarat a-Numan on Sunday, two JTS spokesmen told Syria Direct.
Gun battles between HTS and JTS reached the al-Maara al-Watani hospital and continued for hours on hospital property, one doctor who was present during Sunday’s clashes told Syria Direct on Monday.
Fighters loyal to HTS “tried to storm the hospital while JTS forces barricaded themselves inside it,” the doctor said. He requested that Syria Direct not publish his name or job title, fearing reprisals by rebel factions for talking to the press.
The hospital’s staff ceased operations during the standoff, with medical equipment and the hospital’s attached blood bank “damaged” by the fighting, the SAMS statement read. Doctors later relocated patients to nearby medical facilities elsewhere in Idlib province.
Temporarily closing dozens of medical facilities in the region is a “suitable response,” SAMS said in Monday’s press release, “to remind everyone that humanitarian work, specifically medical operations, are neutral.”
Syria Direct reached out to an HTS spokesman for comment on Sunday, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Infighting between HTS and JTS continued in Idlib and Aleppo province for a second day on Monday despite the hospital closures, in the largest outbreak of violence between the two groups in months.
HTS seized control of three JTS-held villages near Darat Izza in the western Aleppo countryside on Monday morning, local pro-opposition news outlets reported.
A previous round of major infighting broke out this past February, shortly after JTS was formed. At the time, the nascent faction seized large swathes of territory in Idlib and western Aleppo provinces from HTS, Syria Direct reported.
Hostilities between the two factions cooled somewhat with a ceasefire deal in late February that designated dozens of towns and villages in northwestern Syria as neutral, demilitarized zones, though sporadic clashes continued.
Then, on Sunday, HTS seized nearly a dozen villages and towns in southern Idlib—most of which were allegedly devoid of any rebel military presence according to two JTS spokesmen—including the towns of Khan Sheikhoun and Morek, located along the Homs-Aleppo highway, pro-opposition media outlets reported.
“It was a surprise attack,” JTS spokesman Muhammad Adeeb told Syria Direct. “Morek was controlled by its residents—there were no forces from either side present there.” Syria Direct could not independently verify Adeeb’s claim.
The town of Morek is home to a major trade crossing that ferries goods to and from government-held Hama province.
HTS previously controlled the Morek crossing, reportedly levying taxes on all goods passing through it, until the ceasefire deal that initially cooled February’s round of infighting with JTS led to both sides pulling out of the town.
With additional reporting by Tariq Adely.