The Donald Trump administration on May 15 accused Bashar al-Assad's regime of building a crematorium at the Saydnaya prison complex outside Damascus in an effort to destroy evidence of mass murder. In pointed comments just days after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with the president at the White House, US officials said Moscow and Tehran must rein him in before the United States can support their diplomatic efforts in Syria.
“The Assad regime has sunk to a new level of depravity, and it has done so with seemingly unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told journalists at his White House press briefing.
In a shift, the Trump White House suggested it was willing to work not only with Russia but also with Iran to try to end the killing in Syria and advance a political transition if they helped bring an end to Assad’s atrocities. Trump has previously lambasted the nuclear deal with Iran and supported calls for additional sanctions over the country's ballistic missile program.
“The United States remains open to working together with both Russia and Iran to find a solution that leads to a stable and united Syria,” Spicer said. “But in order for us to work together to bring an end to the violence in Syria, Russia and Iran need to acknowledge the atrocities of the Assad regime and use their influence to stop them.”
The comments followed a uniquely horrifying briefing by the State Department’s top Middle East diplomat, who laid out a devastating list of alleged regime atrocities over the past six years of the Syrian civil war. Most shockingly, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones said the United States believes that the Assad regime has built a crematorium to burn the bodies and destroy the evidence of the mass murder of thousands of detainees at the regime’s Saydnaya military prison 45 minutes outside of Damascus. Jones said the Syrian regime is believed to have detained between 65,000 and 117,000 people since the war began in 2011 and until 2015.
“The regime is responsible for killing as many as 50 detainees per day at Saydnaya,” Jones told journalists at a State Department press briefing May 15. “Credible sources have believed that many of the bodies have been disposed of in mass graves.”
“We now believe that the Syrian regime has installed a crematorium in the Saydnaya prison complex that could dispose of detainees’ remains with little evidence,” Jones said. “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, who had to pause several times during the briefing, said Russia had to use its influence over the Assad regime to halt the atrocities and attacks on civilians that have killed the vast majority of the more than 400,000 people estimated to have been killed in six years of war.
“We are appalled by the atrocities carried out by the Assad regime,” he said. “And these atrocities have been carried out seemingly with the unconditional support of Russia and Iran.”
“The regime must stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces,” Jones said. “And Russia must bear responsibility to ensure regime compliance.”
The State Department distributed satellite photos of the Saydnaya military prison complex and suspected crematorium building during the briefing. They offered a stark contrast with the photos of a smiling Trump and Lavrov meeting at the Oval Office last week that were distributed by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Trump told the press pool after his May 10 meeting with Russian diplomats that he’d had a "very, very good meeting" with Lavrov. Both sides, he said at the time, want to end the “the horrible, horrible killing in Syria as soon as possible, and everybody is working toward that end.”
The unusually direct and graphic State Department case laying out the horrors committed by the Syrian regime was intended to bolster Washington’s appeal to the Assad regime’s chief foreign sponsors to use their influence to rein him in, officials and experts said.
“We want Russia to guarantee that the Assad regime will comply with its obligations … and do everything they can to cease the hostilities against civilians,” a State Department official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “Once again, we provide this as [an] indication that the Russian government is not abiding by its responsibilities … and is enabling and complicit in the Syrian regime’s crimes against the Syrian people."
The Trump administration is trying to use the Russian government’s desire to work with it on Syria to try to ramp up pressure on Russia to use its leverage on Assad to advance a Syria political solution, said Aaron Stein, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council.
“I think this is a part of a broader effort to put pressure on Russia to try to put meaningful pressure on the regime to make concessions,” Stein told Al-Monitor. “Whether or not it will work, I have no idea.”
The Trump administration has considerably hardened its stance against Assad since the chemical weapons attack in Idlib province on April 4, Stein said.
“We have seen Trump speak in multiple interviews about the imagery of children being killed with chemical weapons being very powerful on him,” Stein said.
“I think the question is what about sequencing,” Stein said. “Can [Assad] go at the end of negotiations, or does he have to go as a precursor to negotiations. … I still think the [United States] would be flexible on this issue.”
The question, he added, is whether or not Russia will deliver the regime.
The White House said May 15 that it is “unimaginable” Syrians will choose to keep Assad. UN-mediated political transition talks in Geneva could eventually lead to new Syrian elections.
“The Trump administration believes that Syria’s political future should be decided by Syrians in a free, credible and transparent process,” the White House’s Spicer said May 15. “However, we also believe that in a free process, it is unimaginable that Syrians will choose to continue under Assad’s leadership.”
“Syria will never be stable and secure as long as Assad is in power,” Spicer said.
UN-mediated talks between the Syria regime and opposition are due to resume in Geneva on May 16.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, speaking to reporters in Geneva on May 15, said he was glad to see the new US administration get more involved in Syrian peace efforts.
“I am encouraged by the increasing engagement, increasing interest by the US administration in finding a de-escalation, a reduction of violence,” de Mistura said.