Just over a month after the US launched a cruise missile attack at Syria, US relations with Syria are deteriorating rapidly once more after the State Department accused the Syrian government of carrying out mass killings of thousands of prisoners and burning the bodies in a large crematorium outside the capital.
According to Reuters, Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary of near eastern affairs, told reporters on Monday that the State Department believes that about 50 detainees a day are being hanged at Saydnaya military prison, about 45 minutes from Damascus. Many of the bodies, it said, are then being burned in the prison’s crematorium in order to hide evidence of mass murder.
“We now believe that the Syrian regime has installed a crematorium in the Saydnaya Prison Complex which could dispose of detainees remains with little evidence,” Stuart Jones said. “Credible sources have believed that many of the bodies have been disposed in mass graves.” It was not immediately clear what he considers credible sources.
He added that “although the regimes’ many atrocities are well-documented, we believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison.” Jones added that the regime will put up to 70 prisoners in a cell designed to hold five people before they are killed.
The State Department released the additional information in order to put pressure on Russia, which has provided Assad with crucial support. “Russia holds tremendous influence over Bashar al-Assad,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Monday. “The killing and devastation has gone on for far too long in Syria.”
The department released commercial satellite photographs showing what it said is a building in the prison complex that has been modified to support the crematorium. That said, the department conceded that photographs taken over the course of several years, beginning in 2013, do not definitely prove the building is a crematorium, but they show construction consistent with such use. One photograph taken in January 2015 shows one area of the building’s roof cleared of snow due to melt.
In presenting the photographs, Jones said Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government “has sunk to a new level of depravity” with the support of Russia and Iran and called on both countries to use its influence with Syria to establish a credible ceasefire and begin political talks.
Today’s report suggests that the recently proposed plan to implement “de-escalation zones” in Syria is rapidly falling part.
“In light of the information about the mass killings, Jones said that Russia’s calls for “de-escalation zones” in the country would be met with “skepticism” and added that “the (Assad) regime must stop all attacks on civilian and opposition forces. And Russia must bear responsibility to ensure regime compliance.
Jones detailed the information about Assad’s crematorium as part of a condemnation of Russia’s “apparent tolerance of Syrian atrocities” as they support Assad. “We hope that we will now be able to work with the Russians in a constructive way to put pressure on the regime to end these atrocities,” he said.
While we doubt Russia will bother changing its pro-Syria policy as a result of today’s announcement, the bigger question is whether today’s disclosure is the preamble for more strikes aimed at Syria: the answer will likely depend on how desperate the administration is for another distraction from the various ongoing scandals and dead-ends involving the Trump increasingly more shaky domestic policy.