A Syrian man covered with dust carries pieces of metal on a street cluttered with rubble following a reported air strike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Sakhur in the northern city of Aleppo, August 15, 2016. AMEER ALHALBI/AFP/Getty Images
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Assad’s ‘Machinery of Cruel Death’

Amnesty International’s report about the regime’s prison system, in which 17,723 people have reportedly died, is jaw-dropping. So why has the Syrian Civil War lost much of it political resonance?

Armin Rosen
August 24, 2016
A Syrian man covered with dust carries pieces of metal on a street cluttered with rubble following a reported air strike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Sakhur in the northern city of Aleppo, August 15, 2016. AMEER ALHALBI/AFP/Getty Images

The catastrophe in Syria has been going on long enough to become part of the underlying structure of international politics. The immolation of a country of 25 million people—a conflict that has displaced over 12 million people and killed an estimated 400,000—is something for the global powers to work around, rather than actively solve, and it’s arguably been treated that way for years. Syria has long been considered a side-note to other, more pressing issues. For instance, Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon recently claimed that the U.S. edged off of Barack Obama’s chemical weapons “red line” in September of 2013 in order to preserve its ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, which supports the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

But as regional and global powers continue to coldly and unsuccessfully manage the conflict and its consequences, and as the possibility of a decisive military or diplomatic resolution fades, the world’s attention has largely shifted away from the dynamics inside of Syria itself—to the point that even the most appalling facts about the country’s tragedy have lost any broader political resonance. Regime bombings of hospitals have been reduced to minor news items; the mind-boggling reality that over 730 doctors have been killed during the outbreak of civil war is but a tiny factoid embedded in a monotony of horrors. The worse the war gets, the less morally or geo-strategically urgent the carnage seems to become.

Take, for instance, the relative non-reaction to Amnesty International’s jaw-dropping report on Assad’s prison system, published on August 18. According to Amnesty, 17,723 people died in the regime’s prisons between the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March of 2011 and December of 2015. It’s a number that offers false comfort, even in its enormity: as Amnesty notes, some 65,000 people have vanished into Assad’s gulag and are currently being “subjected to enforced disappearance” at the regime’s hands. As the report notes, the “number of confirmed deaths in custody would substantially increase” if the fate of these prisoners were ever learned, and the vast majority of regime prisoners are not terrorists or criminals: “Grounds for arrest on suspicion of opposing the government vary and can include peaceful activism, such as being a human rights defender, journalist or other media worker, providing humanitarian or medical support to civilians in need or having been involved in organizing or attending pro-reform demonstrations.” Simply having a relative “who is wanted by the security forces” is often also grounds for arrest.

The Amnesty report, which is based on information collected by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group and scores of interviews with former prisoners and prison workers, provides added detail to what’s already an especially well-documented atrocity. In mid-2014, Caesar, the code-name for a former forensic photographer for Syria’s military police, provided thousands of photos from Assad’s prison system to human rights investigators. Caesar’s documents demonstrated the systematic and near-industrial scale of Assad’s abuse of political prisoners, and in July of 2014, Stephen Rapp, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, said that Caesar’s documents showed that the regime had created “the kind of a machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen frankly since the Nazis.”

A New Yorker story from this past April described how the Europe-based Commission for International Justice and Accountability had collected millions of documents related to the regime’s prisons, and included harrowing interviews with surviving detainees. Even so, the Amnesty report, which incorporates detailed descriptions of torture methods and living conditions within Assad’s prisons, should remove any possible remaining deniability as to the scope and the severity of the regime’s crimes. It’s a forensically established reality that Assad is killing tens of thousands of people in a system of death camps.

Then again, that’s been a forensically established reality for over two years now. The July 1995 massacre of over 8,000 Bosnians in the UN safe zone of Srebrenica convinced president Bill Clinton of the necessity of using U.S. military power to bring Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to heel. A massacre that is, at minimum, equivalent to two Srebenicas is taking place in Syria, but there’s little expectation of the Amnesty report doing anything to hasten the conflict’s end. Nearly a quarter-million civilians are still in rebel-held sections of Aleppo that are cut off from outside aid; the latest diplomatic solution for the city’s suffering is a proposed 48-hour ceasefire that Russia, which backs Assad, has only grudgingly endorsed. The Amnesty report is the latest record of just how bad things are in Syria—and of the half-decade-long, world-spanning failure to end or even alleviate the country’s suffering.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.