State Department: Assad regime has killed thousands of prisoners and burned them in a crematorium to hide evidence

Unsurprising. Remember, the Assads learned from the experts.

The State Department said it believed 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 crematorium.

“We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison,” said Stuart Jones, the top U.S. diplomatic for the Middle East.

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. The 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.

It’s strange at first blush that Assad would worry about the wider world finding evidence of murder at Saydnaya after six years of dropping barrel bombs across the country, but this wouldn’t be the only example in living memory of a war machine nonetheless taking pains to hide its mass murder of prisoners. Assad wants to hold onto power after the war is over and he’ll need some sort of international buy-in to make that happen. He can try to sell the world, however implausibly, on the idea that battlefield deaths were pure self-defense. Hanging prisoners en masse is a harder sell, as is gassing kids.

Amnesty International published a report about Saydnaya prison in February calling it a “human slaughterhouse” and accusing Assad of “extermination” of his enemies. No mention there of a crematorium, but it does corroborate the number of people being hanged each day as reaching as high as 50. According to survivors:

Many of the prisoners said they were raped or in some cases forced to rape other prisoners. Torture and beatings are used as a regular form of punishment and degradation, often leading to life-long damage, disability or even death. The cell floors are covered with blood and puss from prisoners’ wounds. The bodies of dead detainees are collected by the prison guards each morning, around 9am…

Food and water are regularly cut off. When food is delivered, it is often scattered over the cell floors by the guards, where it mixes with blood and dirt. The very few who leave Saydnaya often do so weighing half the body weight they had when they arrived.

Saydnaya also has its own set of “special rules.” Prisoners are not allowed to make any sounds, speak or even whisper. They are forced to assume certain positions when the guards come into the cells and merely looking at the guards is punishable by death.

The key bit below begins at around 2:00. It’s interesting that they farmed out this announcement to an acting assistant secretary rather than have Rex Tillerson do it, knowing the sort of media spasm that revealing the crematorium would cause. That feels like State doing its best not to overhype this, knowing that the more outrage there is, the more pressure there’ll be on Trump to respond militarily. What does the White House do now? Bomb the prison? Bomb just the crematorium? Bomb … nothing? If Trump acts, he’ll be criticized for treating this as some special transgression even though it’s common knowledge that Assad’s mercenaries have been killing with impunity for years. If dropping a barrel bomb on a crowd merits no response, why does hanging prisoners require another military escalation that drags the U.S. deeper into Syria’s war? That takes us towards a policy where it’s okay to kill en masse so long as you don’t do it in ways that remind us too much of the Nazis. Gas chambers — no. Barrel bombs — well, okay.

Whatever Trump does militarily, this announcement does have the virtue of putting Russia on the hook for yet another Assad atrocity. That’s smart politics by the White House in the wake of Comey’s firing, when the media’s in a new frenzy about Trump supposedly trying to obstruct the Russiagate probe.