Syrian Defector Brings Torture Photos to Congress

The former photographer for the Syrian military police said an additional 150,000 people could be killed.

A rebel fighter burns a Syrian flag found in a building that belonged to Syrian government forces in the northern city of Aleppo on November 21, 2013. Fighting for a key military base outside Syria's main northern city of Aleppo killed at least 15 pro-government militiamen, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
July 31, 2014, 7:51 a.m.

Law­makers re­acted with out­rage and hor­ror at a House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee hear­ing Thursday that fea­tured pho­tos of people who had been starved, tor­tured, and killed in Syr­ia. But they also seemed at a loss for find­ing an im­me­di­ate solu­tion to the crisis.

Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Royce said the pho­tos por­trayed “hor­rendous vi­ol­ence car­ried out on an in­dus­tri­al scale” by the re­gime of Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad dur­ing the coun­try’s on­go­ing civil war.

The pho­tos shown Thursday were just a small por­tion of the roughly 50,000 that “Caesar,” who uses the pseud­onym in or­der to pro­tect his safety, handed over to the Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion. Caesar, wear­ing a dis­guise at the hear­ing so he could not be iden­ti­fied, presen­ted and dis­cussed the pho­tos on Thursday.

“I have seen hor­rendous pic­tures and bod­ies of people who had huge, tre­mend­ous amounts of tor­ture like deep burns, and wounds and stran­gu­la­tion,” he told law­makers, build­ing a nar­rat­ive of a Syr­i­an re­gime that killed its own people without hes­it­a­tion. “And bod­ies that had their eyes gouged out as well as bod­ies that were severely beaten.”

Caesar, a former pho­to­graph­er for the mil­it­ary po­lice who de­fec­ted and es­caped from Syr­ia with the help of the Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion, didn’t take all of the pho­tos—which show ap­prox­im­ately 11,000 people—but he said he was re­spons­ible with a col­league for up­load­ing every photo taken for the mil­it­ary po­lice to state com­puters.

The pho­tos shown at the hear­ing ranged from an in­di­vidu­al man with a blood­ied face to more than a dozen dead bod­ies laid out in the gar­age of a mil­it­ary hos­pit­al.

The Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment says the pho­tos Caesar turned over to the op­pos­i­tion are fake, but they’ve been in­de­pend­ently veri­fied by an in­ter­na­tion­al team, a mem­ber of which ap­peared be­fore the com­mit­tee Thursday.

“Your ap­pear­ance here today Caesar is like a blow to our mid-sec­tion,” said Demo­crat­ic Rep. Theodore Deutch.

Law­makers on both sides of the aisle used the hear­ing to voice their frus­tra­tion about the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of Syr­ia, but they also seemed to be at a loss for what could im­me­di­ately be done.

“I be­lieve that we missed a tre­mend­ous op­por­tun­ity to help the Free Syr­i­an Army,” said Rep. Eli­ot En­gel. ” … I be­lieve that if we had helped them they would be the pree­m­in­ent op­pos­i­tion.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion is re­quest­ing ap­prox­im­ately $500 mil­lion, as part of a lar­ger coun­terter­ror­ism fund, to help aid Syr­ia’s mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion fight­ers. The United States has also pledged $2.4 bil­lion in hu­man­it­ari­an as­sist­ance.

The com­mit­tee passed a res­ol­u­tion earli­er this year, call­ing for an in­vest­ig­a­tion, and pos­sible pro­sec­u­tion, of war crimes com­mit­ted dur­ing the coun­try’s civil war. They also asked for the United Na­tions to es­tab­lish a war-crimes tribunal.

Fre­der­ic Hof, a former U.S. am­bas­sad­or and ad­viser to Syr­ia, said the United States has two policy op­tions: Either try to get along with As­sad or help arm and train mod­er­ate Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion.

“The po­s­i­tion that I don’t think we want to be in is two years from now, in 2016, look­ing back “¦ and say­ing if only we had done something in 2014,” Hof said. But he also ac­know­ledged that build­ing up and train­ing Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion fight­ers out­side of Syr­ia would be an “ex­traordin­ar­ily com­plex and ex­pens­ive plan. Build­ing an army ba­sic­ally.”

But at least one law­maker ap­peared skep­tic­al, with Rep. Alan Grayson ask­ing, “When has that ever worked?”

The Flor­ida Demo­crat com­pared the idea that the United States should train an op­pos­i­tion army to years the United States spent in Ir­aq train­ing the coun­try’s se­cur­ity forces—only to have many of them re­fuse to fight ISIL forces that have now taken con­trol of large swaths of the coun­try.

“Why do you think that your hy­po­thet­ic­al force would be any dif­fer­ent?” he asked.

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