Caesar in blue.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Assad’s Torture Machine on Display in Congress

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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More than a year after the revelation of mass atrocities committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Holocaust Museum in Washington is enlisting Congress in a new effort to highlight the torture and murder of civilians in Assad’s jails.

When Congress returns from its recess this month, lawmakers walking the halls of the Capitol will be confronted with photos showing startling evidence of the crimes committed by Assad’s regime. The United State Holocaust Memorial Museum, working with the bipartisan leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is set to display dozens of photos in the halls of both the Capitol and the Rayburn House Office Building.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

The photos are a small sample of the evidence smuggled out of Syria by the man known as “Caesar,” a military police photographer who was forced by the regime to document the war crimes before he escaped Syria and brought the evidence to the world. State Department officials have called Assad’s “machinery of death” the worst systematic and institutionalized mass murder by a government against its people “since the Nazis.”

For the Holocaust Museum, this is an effort to live up to its mission to “prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.” Many of the photos have been up at the museum as part of a special exhibit, which has also been on display inside the United Nations. Caesar testified to Congress and visited the museum last summer.

The stories that accompany the photos “reminded many at the Holocaust Museum of the harrowing accounts that came out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s,” said Cameron Hudson, the director of the Museum’s center for the prevention of genocide. “We are looking for every opportunity to remind people that these atrocities have been committed and are still being committed and there deserves to be both accountability and a sustained attention to plight of Syrian civilians.”

More than a year after Caesar came to Washington, there has been little progress by the Barack Obama administration in holding the Assad regime accountable for what the FBI and State Department have confirmed is evidence of the murder of at least 11,000 civilians in custody, including several European citizens.

“There are a number of small-scale private efforts led by individuals in the administration, but we haven’t seen an overarching defined policy for accountability for individuals in the regime or the regime leadership,” said Hudson. “We’re sending a signal to the Assad regime and to the civilians caught up in this conflict that they haven’t been forgotten.”

The photos will be unveiled in a July 15 morning event in the Rayburn Room, a large, ornate space just between the House floor and the offices of Speaker John Boehner. Committee leaders from both parties will speak. Many are frustrated by what they see as the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for holding the Assad regime accountable. They are upset that the White House is seeking a political accommodation with the brutal regime and its allies to solve the overarching conflict in Syria and Iran.

“Assad’s atrocities have destroyed the lives of millions of Syrians -- many of whom entered the streets four years ago to peacefully demand political change,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce. “The president has acknowledged the suffering of the Syrian people, but has been unwilling to take meaningful action, such as a no-fly zone against Assad’s barrel bombers.” 

After a few days in the Capitol, the photo display will be moved to the hallways of the Rayburn House Office Building and perhaps the Russell Senate Office Building after that. “We are bringing these images to the people’s House in the hope that outrage will transform into action,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force and United for a Free Syria “We have seen little done by the administration to address these massacres in Assad’s jails, but our faith is in the American people and their representatives.”

In the Senate, there is a new bipartisan push to respond to Assad’s brutality, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Ben Cardin. With the help of Senator Marco Rubio, he is pushing the Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act of 2015, which the committee approved last month. The bill would require Obama to report back to Congress on accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, and calls on the president to increase U.S. efforts to respond to the “gross human rights violations” carried out by the Assad regime, including the use of crude barrel bombs and chemical weapons such as weaponized chlorine on a mass scale.

“This legislation establishes a necessary Syria-specific standard of reporting for crimes against humanity to ensure that one day soon, justice for innocent Syrians will prevail,” Cardin said last month. His bill would also cover atrocities committed by extremist groups in Syria.

The Obama administration’s Syria policy, however, is centered around the hope that Assad, along with his allies Russia and Iran, can be persuaded to negotiate a political solution under which Assad will voluntarily relinquish power. Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said there were indications that the political process on Syria could have new life. He also said, “Assad needs to be transitioned out,” the latest iteration of the former policy that “Assad must go.”

Some White House and State Department officials believe that pressing the Assad regime on its war crimes now would complicate the effort to revive the political process. They advocate for a de facto policy of regime preservation, and warn that pressing Assad now could lead to a collapse of the regime and the takeover of Syria by the Islamic State and other jihadists, leading to an even worse humanitarian calamity.

For those pushing the evidence of Assad’s atrocities into the view of the powerful in Washington, there’s no good excuse for letting mass torture and murder continue. The scale of the death is too drastic to ignore in favor of pursuing a nascent and far-fetched accommodation with Assad.

“There’s no question that it’s a more complicated picture now. There’s always this question of how do you prioritize justice and peace,” said Hudson. “The fluidity of the situation complicates the issue for the administration, but our suggestion is that the moral case is no more complex than it was two years ago.”

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To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net