Today, the State Department took direct aim at Syria, and in particular at its Russian and Iranian allies, by declaring that the Assad regime was slaughtering thousands of political prisoners and cremating the remains to conceal the act.
At least 50 prisoners a day are executed in the prison, some in mass hangings, said Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. A recent Amnesty International report called Sednaya a “human slaughterhouse” and said that thousands of Syrians have been abducted, detained and “exterminated” there.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad, Jones said, has carried out these atrocities and others “seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” his main backers.
Russia, Jones said, “has either aided in or passively looked away as the regime has” engaged in years of “mass murders” and other atrocities, including extensive bombing of hospitals and other health-care sites and the use of chemical weapons on both civilians and rebel forces.
Jones’s remarks, made in a special State Department briefing, were notable not only for their substance but for the harsh language used to call on Russia to take action.
The painting of Russia as an enabler, if not an actual collaborator, in this is pretty significant. Russia is much more likely than Iran to be concerned about the actions of the Syrian regime being exposed. The operative word here is exposed. Concern for human life has never been a trait associated with either Russia or the Soviet Union at any point in its history.
What proceeds next is speculation.
1. The Trump administration will continue to talk up Syrian atrocities but will refrain from taking action unless it can do so in a clear and limited way as it did with the missile strikes.
2. There will be calls to bomb this prison to destroy the crematorium but absent a really good feel for the location of the prisoners, an attack on the facility stands as much a chance of killing them as destroying the execution apparatus. That may be meaningless to them as their goose is pretty much cooked no matter what but the optics of the US whacking Assad’s prisoners would be bad.
3. In my estimation, Tillerson’s interview yesterday where he differentiated between policy and values will be the operative concept. We don’t want to be extensively embroiled in Syria, risking unfortunate encounters with Russian troops and equipment while we are looking at a tinderbox in North Korea.
4. Regime change in Syria is definitely on the table. The Administration is aligning itself with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia to limit Iranian influence. As ISIS steadily collapses under its own weight, the Syrian opposition, even though it is al-Qaeda-lite, will be able to focus on Assad. This statement should be seen as building an ironclad case that Assad has to go. But it is not a top priority.
The challenge for the Administration will be twisting the screws on Russia to give them reason to disengage while at the same time resisting being dragged into a morass such as George H. W. Bush was dragged into in Somalia.