WASHINGTON — The State Department said today that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has built a crematorium to wipe away evidence of up to 50 extrajudicial killings of dissidents and rebels a day at one of his largest military prisons.
At a special briefing, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones presented new declassified reporting and photos, including of the building believed to be the crematorium, to “underscore the depths to which the Syrian regime has gone with the continuing support of its allies Russia and Iran.”
“The continued brutality of the Assad regime, including its use of chemical weapons, presents a clear threat to regional stability and security as well as to the national security interests of the United States and our allies,” Jones said, noting the death toll of civilians alone is estimated at 400,000 since the beginning of the uprising against Assad.
In addition to airstrikes that often involve barrel bombs and targeting hospitals strikes, the regime is conducting chemical weapons attacks, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, starvation, sexual violence, and withholding food, water, and medical care to civilians, Jones said, as the regime “continues to systematically abduct and torture civilian detainees, often beating, electrocuting, and raping these victims.”
The regime was notorious for detaining and torturing dissidents before the war, but from 2011 to 2015 NGOs estimate the regime “abducted and detained between 65,000 and 117,000 people.”
The State Department official said thousands of detainees have been killed in mass hangings at the Saydnaya military prison, a 45-minute drive outside of Damascus.
“The regime holds as many as 70 prisoners in Saydnaya in cells that have a five-person capacity. And according to multiple sources, the regime is responsible for killing as many as 50 detainees per day at Saydnaya. Credible sources have believed that many of the bodies have been disposed in mass graves. 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,” Jones said.
“Beginning in 2013, the Syrian regime modified a building within the Saydnaya complex to support what we believe is a crematorium, as shown in the photos that we have distributed to you. Although the regime’s many atrocities are well documented, we believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison.”
Jones added that “these atrocities have been carried out seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” later clarifying that he wasn’t saying either country has participated in the activities at the crematorium.
“What we’re assessing is that if you have that level of production of mass murder, then using the crematorium would help – would allow the regime to manage that number of corpses coming out of the prison complex,” he said. “And without evidence.”
Jones didn’t say if any U.S. action would be taken against the crematorium.
U.S. officials studied satellite photos from 2013 through this year and pinpointed “the construction phase, and these HVAC facilities, the discharge stack, the probable firewall, the probable air intake… this would be consistent if they were building a crematorium,” the assistant secretary said.
“This information has been developing, and with the meeting last week between the [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov and the secretary [of State], this was an opportune time to remind people about the atrocities that are being carried out inside of Syria all the time, of which this is one discrete additive piece of evidence,” Jones concluded.