Inside Syria's secret torture facilities

The Washington Post published a story yesterday detailing the system of detention, torture and mass murder that arose after 2011 in Syria. The story is based on the experiences of Mohsen al-Masri, who opposed the regime through the symbolic release of multi-colored ping-pong balls with the word “freedom” written on them. For this trivial show of opposition to the Assad regime, Masri spent two years being tortured at a series of sites that included hospitals.

The descriptions of what went on at these sites sound more like an episode of The Walking Dead than real life. Masri and other political prisoners were chained to beds and starved. They were beaten regularly and tortured by their guards, often until they died. From the Washington Post:

The guards went by nicknames to avoid identification. Four survivors said the most famous was known as Azrael, or the Angel of Death. They described him as a thickset man from Assad’s coastal stronghold of Latakia who carried a stick laced with razor blades. They said he selected prisoners, most of them deathly ill, for a fate he called “justice.” The detainees called it execution.

Masri recalled Azrael taking a lighter to a plastic bag and melting it drop by drop onto a prisoner’s face until he died, apparently of a heart attack. Other prisoners said he used an iron rod to smash their bedmates’ skulls.

Many died where they lay, slumped against their bedmates until morning came. For Mustafa in the winter of 2012, that meant sharing a bed until sunrise the next day with three corpses.

The experiences Masri describes were documented by the Assad regime. In 2014 a Syrian defector given the code name Caesar fled the regime with 55,000 photos of tortured individuals. In response, a bipartisan group in Congress supported the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act to impose sanctions on Syria. The bill was supposed to get a vote last Septemeber but at the last moment the Obama administration intervened and asked Democrats not to move forward to protect a cease-fire effort being made at the time by Secretary of State John Kerry. When Kerry’s cease-fire effort collapsed, the Obama administration again tried to prevent the bill from coming up for a vote, arguing it could violate the terms of the Iran deal.

Last week, CBS News reported the Trump administration seems to have abandoned opposition to Assad:

On Thursday, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. is not focused on pushing Assad out of power and that Assad’s status would be determined by the people of Syria…

After Tillerson commented that the longer-term status of Assad would be decided by the Syrian people, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, fired back saying, “this overlooks the tragic reality that the Syrian people cannot decide the fate of Assad or the future of their country when they are being slaughtered by Assad’s barrel bombs, Putin’s aircraft and Iran’s terrorist proxies. U.S. policy must reflect such basic facts.”

It’s not fair to blame this shift on the Trump administration given that the Obama administration has arguably had acceptance of Assad as a de facto policy since the red line fiasco. Still, for anyone who thought Obama did too little as the Syrian regime murdered tens of thousands of its own citizens, used chemical weapons, and created an unprecedented refugee crisis with national security implications for Europe and the U.S.—it’s significant that the Trump administration seems prepared to abandon even the pretense of holding the regime accountable.