The Syrian government is using a crematorium at a military prison to clandestinely dispose of thousands of prisoners it continues to execute inside the facility, according to the State Department.
Stuart E. Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said officials believed that the crematory had been constructed so that little evidence exists of the executions at the Sednaya Prison complex, where at least 50 prisoners a day are killed.
The evidence presented by the United States remains circumstantial. Satellite photographs of the complex show that while nearby buildings were covered in snow, the roof of the building suspected to be a crematory was free of snow, suggesting a significant internal heat source. Officials also said that a discharge stack, and architectural elements thought to be a firewall and air intake, were consistent with a crematory.
Jones said that prisoners had in the past been buried in mass graves, but that a crematory could dispose of the bodies without leaving evidence behind.
Amnesty International recently reported that since 2011, thousands of civilians had been executed in mass hangings at the prison, some carried out at night in an attempt to maintain secrecy.
The prison complex is about 45 minutes north of Damascus.
The timing of the public announcement suggested that the Trump administration was pressing a tougher political line on Syria, and seeking to embarrass Russia and Iran — which have supported the government of President Bashar Assad — in an effort to press the Syrian leadership to engage in substantive negotiations.
The State Department's release of the photographs came a day before a new round of negotiations on the Syria crisis is to begin in Geneva today.
The messenger also seemed significant: Jones is the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat under President Donald Trump to engage in the details of Syria diplomacy. He was an observer at a conference on Syria in Astana, Kazakhstan, last month, part of a parallel track of talks led by Russia and Turkey. Those talks yielded a new plan — praised by some, derided by others — to establish "de-escalation zones" in Syria.
At the same time, it was noticeable that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was not the one making the announcement.
The allegations also surfaced as momentum builds on several court cases being prepared in Europe in an attempt to hold Syrian government officials accountable for war crimes. Witnesses gave testimony this month in German federal court in a criminal case that accuses six senior Syrian security officers of responsibility for atrocities.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.