By Jonah Bennet
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gestures during an exclusive interview with AFP in the capital Damascus on February 11, 2016. Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images.
In a briefing Monday, the Department of State admitted that the alleged crematorium in the Syrian prison used to incinerate prisoners could actually just be a warmer part of the building.
The State Department stated Monday based on international and local NGO reports that the alleged crematorium used to burn the bodies of hundreds of hanged prisoners at a prison run by the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad may not be a crematorium at all.
Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, said that the prison in Saydnaya was modified in 2013 to support what the agency believes to be a crematorium, which is used to “cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Saydnaya prison.”
As many as 50 prisoners per day are killed at Saydnaya, and an Amnesty International report from February 2017 said that anywhere from 5,000-13,000 prisoners have been executed at the site from 2013 to the present.
But one of the reporters present at the briefing wanted to know how sure the State Department was in its assessment of the modified building as a crematorium.
“What makes you so sure that this is a crematorium and not just some other building? Is it this thing with the snowmelt?” a reporter asked. “Because, I mean, people are going to look at this – the regime in particular or – and the Russians, who you’re – are going to look at this and say: Well, all this proves is that there is a building there and that that part where there’s – snow is melted is simply warmer than the rest of the building.”
Jones responded that the three satellite photos of the prison facility from 2013 to 2017 are “consistent” with the construction of a crematorium.
“If you look at the earliest photo, the August 13 photo, this is during the construction phase, and these HVAC facilities, the discharge stack, the probable firewall, the probable air intake, this is in the construction phase,” Jones said. “This would be consistent if they were building a crematorium.”
“Then we look at the January 15 (photos), and we’re looking at snowmelt on the roof that would be consistent with a crematorium,” he continued.
Or just a warmer part of a building, right?” the reporter asked.
“Possibly,” Jones said.
Jones then stated that the reason the State Department is now releasing the evidence it has collected over the past four years is because of the recent meeting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week. The department wanted to remind people of ongoing atrocities in Syria.
Jones abruptly informed his colleagues Tuesday that he’s retiring from the State Department, according to three U.S. officials who spoke with Reuters.
A U.S. official emphasized to Reuters that Jones’ retirement is his own decision and has nothing to do with any fall out.
“This is his own decision … There’s not been a falling out,” a U.S. official told Reuters. “There’s no story here, except another senior government official with real competence is leaving.”