On Monday, the State Department revealed that it possessed evidence that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime was operating an industrial crematorium at the Saydnaya military prison outside Damascus. Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said that the U.S. believes the Assad regime had practiced extrajudicial mass executions of thousands of prisoners. “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,” he said.
Jones presented areal photographs showing what the State Department believes is the crematorium, noting that the regime was likely executing as many as 50 detainees a day at the prison. Jones’s comments echo the findings of an Amnesty International report in February, which alleged that thousands of detainees have been hanged at Saydnaya. The report said prisoners were moved at night from their cells under the pretext of being transferred, and taken to the grounds of the prison and hanged. The regime has denied any wrongdoing.
The State Department’s revelation of Assad’s industrial killing process coincided with comments from former President Obama, extolling his own courage in deciding not to strike Syria in 2013 following Assad’s chemical weapons attacks against civilians. The timing of Obama’s self-congratulation is apt. “’Never again’ is more than an empty slogan,” Obama said in 2012. Then, for the next four years, he courageously watched as the client of his Iranian regional partner perpetrated mass murder on an industrial scale.
Throughout the six years of the war, Obama consistently conveyed a message that Syria was someone else’s sectarian religious war, drawing on grievances that date back centuries. There are no good guys in Syria, the White House talking point went. Bad and worse are simply killing each other, and wisdom consists of resisting the urge to take sides. What this messaging did was trivialize industrial-scale slaughter perpetrated by a government backed by two other governments: Russia and Iran.
Instead, the Obama Administration found ISIS to be a more useful enemy. “ISIS is the face of evil,” Obama said following the Paris attacks in November 2015. His Secretary of State John Kerry added that ISIS was “the order of Satan,” while Obama urged “everyone to focus on destroying ISIS”—he wrote to Iran’s Supreme Leader promising not to touch Assad.
Obama’s decision to obscure the Assad regime’s industrial killing machine cloaked itself in a phony language of humanitarianism. Our objective in Syria was to “de-escalate the conflict,” to “stop the violence,” and to “end the war” with a “political settlement,” so that everyone could focus on ISIS. Much like the “there are no good guys” line, this language, too, muddied the waters more than anything else. The fact remains that, in Syria, there is no one that comes close to the level and scale of Assad’s industrial killing process. ISIS barely rates a mention.
As the revelations about Assad’s prison system demonstrate, “ending the war” does not address the machinery of death in the regime’s dungeons. The unspeakable horror of the Assad prison system is a longstanding tradition of the Assad family, dating back to Bashar’s father. A recent translation of one numbing Syrian prison memoir captures the brutality of the notorious Tadmor prison in the days of Assad Sr.
But Bashar has managed to surpass his father. You will not find descriptions of crematoria to dispose of thousands of dead detainees in Syrian prison literature. That picture conjures another event in history.
Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.