Author: SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Posted on May 16, 2017
In a press conference Monday, the US accused the Syrian regime of using a crematorium to dispose of bodies to cover up extensive mass murders by the government.
The United States is upping its rhetoric to encourage Russia to exercise influence over Damascus and stop the abuses.
It is a clear message to Syrian President Bashar Assad and Moscow on the eve of President Donald Trump’s Middle East trip. The stark black-and-white photos of the alleged crematorium also echo images from the Holocaust.
In the short briefing, acting assistant Secretary of State Stuart Jones outlined how the Syrian conflict had left more than 400,000 dead. Basing his claims on reports of international and local NGOs as well as intelligence assessments, Jones provided a laundry list of regime abuses that he said underscored the depth of support from Russia and Iran. “The regime has abducted between 65,000 and 117,000 [people] between 2011 and 2015,” the statement said.
In addition, up to 50 prisoners a day at Saydnaya prison were executed. Many were buried in mass graves, but the US says a building modified after 2013 may be a crematorium. Jones, who was present at the recent de-escalation talks in Astana, stressed that Russia must “bear responsibility to ensure regime compliance” with stopping attacks on civilians.
Tough language, but why now? Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, said this is not the first time evidence has emerged of Assad’s role in widespread mass murder of prisoners and detainees. An Amnesty International report titled “Human Slaughterhouse,” published in February, included interviews with prisoners who said up to 100 people were hung a week.
“What we are hearing that is new is the claim that the regime built a crematorium to do away with corpses. They have released overhead photographs and one needs to take a look and experts would need to assess the veracity; all we can do is think of the feasibility of it. You have a large number of corpses and need to get rid of them, one [method] is burning or mass burials. It’s not in any way beyond the realm of possibility.”
Burning people would remove the evidence of war crimes at a prison only 45 minutes from Damascus. Mohammed Ruzgar, a Syrian journalist, said he has heard rumors that the regime was burning bodies from many sources, but could not verify it. “It’s to remove evidence,” he said.
At the beginning of the conflict, the regime often detained Syrians, and tortured and killed them. Ruzgar said that in the old days, the bodies would be returned to families, “but later we did not hear about families receiving dead bodies.” Even mass graves would eventually be found, he said. “The US is [bringing up this issue] to use as leverage against Russia.”
Spyer agrees that what we are seeing is a change in tone from the US. “This is not the first instance, this is a tougher tone, and put that together with Tomahawk missiles [launched against Syria on April 7], a sense of some kind of shift. Does that presage a major policy shift by US administration? It is hard to imagine how that can happen,” he said.
Spyer argues that the deepening Russian role in the last years means the US cannot go to war with the regime without going to war with Russia. He forecasts a toughening of the US tone and increasing diplomatic pressure.
“It’s an insane regime and good that the administration is telling people about it.”
With Trump planning a major visit to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis seeing a new partnership with Washington and a $100-billion arms deal, the Syrian civil war will likely figure prominently on the agenda.
The State Department accusations lay the groundwork, then, for the Sunni Arab regime Trump will meet to re-focus efforts in Syria, perhaps relating to defending the Syrian rebel enclaves in the South and North.
For others, the black-and-white images of the crematorium will echo the Holocaust as Trump’s visit to Yad Vashem remains unconfirmed. It isn’t clear the State Department sought that the crematorium, a cogent symbol of genocide, be their central talking point.
Its mention was buried halfway through their statement and they didn’t give a clear accusation of the number of bodies burned. The regime’s other crimes, such as use of poison gas, should have already put it in the dock for crimes against humanity.