Amnesty International has reported that between 2011 and 2015, the Assad regime arrested and detained 117,000 people. Further reports indicate that the regime was killing around 50 people per day in his notorious Seyedna Prison. All in all, it is believed as many as 13,000 people of the 117,000 have been killed in this manner.
But getting rid of 13,000 bodies is no easy feat and no mass graves have been found. The regime and their defenders have always countered that these accusations are untrue, and that we lacked the evidence to back up those assertions.
Now, however, we do have a pretty good idea of what happened to those people. It looks like the regime built a crematorium at the prison complex to dispose of the bodies and other evidence. Aerial photography provided by the US government shows a complex of buildings at the Seyedna Prison that bears all the hall marks of a crematorium.
It has the necessary intake valves, ducts, firewalls, and even when it snowed and the whole area was covered with snow it was the only building not covered. A very convenient facility to have if you have a constant stream of dead bodies to dispose of from the nearby prison.
And this is just one facility at one prison. There could well be others. So what do we do about it? As it turns out, not much. And haven’t been doing much for years. It seems the US government knew about this from 2012, but chose not to make this information public.
The Obama administration chose not to disclose this information because it was desperate to avoid its humanitarian responsibilities in Syria. Or perhaps it felt, I believe wrongly, that intervening would not help the situation.
It seems the information was released now by the Trump administration to once again discredit their predecessors. Or perhaps to argue that their own lack of humanitarian intervention in the conflict is no worse than the Obama policy. After all, Obama sat on this information while trying to justify his “do nothing” policy.
As has been the case for the past six years, we seem to lack the political will to make things happen in Syria. And so long as this remains the case, many more people will disappear without trace into crematoriaDr. Azeem Ibrahim
The moral imperative
What is also interesting about this is that the information was not released by Secretary of State Tillerson. Rather, it was released by someone much more junior. The administration is perhaps trying not to tie itself to any mast here. They do not want to back themselves into a corner from where they cannot avoid the moral imperative to act. This also lends weight to the “we’re no worse than Obama” hypothesis for their motivation.
Whatever the triangulation here, it seems that this administration is also determined to give the Syrian conflict a pass. When Trump bombarded the airfield at Shayrat in response to Assad’s latest chemical attacks against the civilian population in Idlib province in April, there were high hopes that America had grown a spine and would be ready to do what is needed to speed up the resolution of the conflict.
Those hopes have since evaporated. And, as we had previously expected, the administration’s relations to Russia took precedence over any humanitarian concerns. There are currently ongoing Russian and Turkish efforts to establish safe zones in their respective areas of interest in Syria, from which a lasting cease-fire can be built.
If we could have any confidence that these efforts could help bring the end of the conflict nearer, then we should support these efforts, and oppose the appearance on the scene of the United States as an extra complicating and destabilizing factor. These efforts have yet to be fruitful.
Perhaps a credible threat of decisive Western intervention to aid the Turkish efforts in the rebel North would help concentrate minds. But, as has been the case for the past six years, we seem to lack the political will to make things happen in Syria. And so long as this remains the case, many more people will disappear without trace into crematoria.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.