The Department of State distributed photos on Monday of a large building it said had been adapted for the large-scale burning of bodies at Saydnaya military prison, 45 minutes’ drive from the Syrian capital, where it said that up to 50 detainees are hanged in mass executions on a daily basis.
“Although the regime’s many atrocities are well documented, we believed building a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass killings taking place in Saydnaya prison,” said Stuart Jones, the top US diplomat dealing with the Middle East.
Jones distributed satellite images of Saydnaya prison, labelling the structure which the US alleges is the new crematorium. In February, Amnesty International published a report on what it described as a secret campaign of mass hangings and extermination at Saydnaya. The report said as many as 13,000 people had been hanged over the first five years of the war, in what it described as a “human slaughterhouse”. The regime is thought to have detained more than 100,000 people in jails and detention camps all over the country, where severe overcrowding, torture and summary executions are reported to be commonplace.
Bashar al-Assad rejected the Amnesty International report as a product of the “fake news era”.
“You can forge anything these days,” he told Yahoo News.
Jones said that the state department information on Saydnaya were based in part on US intelligence.
Washington released the pictures a day before government and opposition representatives are expected to start several days of indirect talks in Geneva, the sixth round of negotiations which have so far done nothing to stop the conflict.
Assad has predicted that “nothing substantial” would come from the Geneva talks this week, which he described as “merely a meeting for the media”. The Syrian leader said he was more focused on parallel negotiations brokered by Turkey, Russia and Iran in the Kazakh capital, Astana, aimed at establishing “de-escalation zones” where there would be local ceasefires.
The Astana proposal is also supposed to include a mechanism for the exchange of prisoners between the regime and the opposition mediated by a board with representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Russia, Iran and Turkey. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan di Mistura described the Astana mechanism as a “good development” but opposition activist Bassam Barabandi rejected it as a sham.
“How can some of the world’s worst human rights abusers sit on this board?” Barabandi asked. “There is no way of finding out how many people the regime has been holding and how many it has killed. This legitimises the disappearances and di Mistura should not be part of a political manoeuvre by Russia and Iran.”
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, visited Washington last Wednesday to try to win US backing for the plan, which would involve four such zones, where the regime would negotiate a ceasefire with the local opposition and stop air strikes.
Lavrov met Donald Trump and the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, but US officials were said to be non-committal about the Astana proposals, preferring to wait to see if Moscow could really restrain the Assad regime from aerial bombing.
“In light of the failure of previous ceasefires, we remain sceptical,” Jones said.
Under Trump, the White House and State have toned down demands for Assad to step down, but they are said to be focused on the collection of evidence that could one day used if he stands trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It is not clear whether US officials confronted their Russian counterparts with the evidence from Saydnaya during the Lavrov visit. In the past, Moscow has adamantly defended the regime against multiple allegations of war crimes, dismissing the evidence as fake.
On Monday, Jones accused the Assad regime’s allies, Russia in particular, of complicity or acquiescence in war crimes.
“Russia has either aided in or passively looked away as the regime conducted an air strike against a UN convoy, destroyed eastern Aleppo and used chemical weapons including sarin against civilians in Idlib province on 4 April,” Jones said. “Russia must now, with great urgency, exercise its influence over the Syrian regime to guarantee that horrific violation stop now.”
Author: Julian Borger