A Chicago doctor treats the wounded of Aleppo and carries the burden

There are 275,000 people trapped in the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria, a war zone cut off from the outside world. Zaher Sahloul, a Chicago-area doctor, has run the gantlet of Syrian and Russian jets, snipers and bomb-dropping helicopters to treat the wounded at a secret field hospital known as M10 in the basement of a half-destroyed building.

Sahloul, a critical care specialist at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, last spent time in Aleppo this summer, but as it goes for those who witness gross tragedy, he still feels like a bit of him is there, with the victims. He's got photos on his phone of bloody, damaged children, and a conscience that compels him to speak out about the suffering he's witnessed.

There was Ahmad, a 5-year-old boy hit by shrapnel from a barrel bomb that severed his spinal cord. Ahmad was pulled from the rubble and might have survived if he could have been evacuated to a hospital in Turkey. There was 12-year-old Abdullah, another bombing victim, with a bleeding chest. Sahloul needed to insert a draining tube to keep Abdullah's lungs clear, but there was no anesthesia so the pain was excruciating. What Sahloul thinks about is how polite the boy remained, even in his pleading. There was Fatima, 25, in the third month of pregnancy, whose house was hit twice by barrel bombs. Two of her children were killed, and she lost the pregnancy.

Those barrel bombs, Sahloul says, are crude, insidious weapons of destruction dropped by the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. The barrels are filled with explosives and metal shards. They fall straight from the sky so there is no question they are meant to rain terror on civilian targets. The preferred strategy is the "double tap," Sahloul says. "They hit you with one bomb, and then the paramedics come and they hit you with another, to cause as much injury as possible to the first responders."

To hear Sahloul's stories is to take on some of his burden and lift the fog of war in Syria if only briefly. Eastern Aleppo is held by anti-government rebels. The fighting and politics in Syria are so complex and intractable that it's easy to shrug and focus elsewhere. Sahloul reminds us why that's unacceptable: because the innocent are suffering in a country with crucial stakes for U.S. national security. At a minimum, Americans should understand Aleppo's pain.

Sahloul visited us recently with two other Chicago doctors, Samer Attar and John Kahler, who went to Aleppo on behalf of the Syrian American Medical Society. Sahloul is no strategist or politician, but he feels that the Obama administration gave up on Syria. He's frustrated, and so are we. Since President Barack Obama's 2012 misguided declaration of a "red line" over Assad's use of chemical weapons, the U.S. receded, allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to step in and prop up Assad.

"I follow every word on Syria, and (Obama) tends to put it on the back burner," Sahloul says of the multifaceted conflict that involves Assad, Islamic State, the Kurds, Russians, Iranians and others. He notes that Obama's preferred name for Islamic State is ISIL instead of ISIS. "He calls it ISIL because the 'S' means Syria and that means failure."

Is there hope for Aleppo? The U.N. calls it a slaughterhouse. Sahloul says it is genocide. In recent days, Russia has declared temporary cease-fires to allow Aleppo's residents and wounded to flee, but people aren't leaving; they don't trust the offer — and have nowhere to run. The bombing surely will resume and ultimately this ancient city may be destroyed.

Our most recent Syria editorial called for sanctions on Putin to drive him to the negotiating table. We know pressing him will take time and a commitment we haven't seen from the current occupant of the White House. Meanwhile, the American-led war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria shows greater results. That means the temptation will be to focus efforts there, and avert our attention from Aleppo. Zaher Sahloul reminds us of the human cost of looking away.

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