BEIRUT – Emaciated corpses lie in the sand, their ribs protruding over sunken bellies, their thighs as thin as wrists. Several show signs of strangulation. The images conjure memories of some of history’s worst atrocities.
Numbers inscribed on more than 11,000 bodies in 55,000 photographs said to emerge from the secret jails of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, suggest that torture, starvation and execution are widespread and even systematic, each case logged with bureaucratic detail.
This collection of images was identified as having been part of a voluminous archive of torture and execution maintained by the Syrian government and smuggled out by a police photographer who defected and was given the code name Caesar.
So far, only a few photographs have actually been released by lawyers commissioned by the Qatari government, an avowed opponent of Assad, and the claims about their origins could not be independently verified.
If genuine, the trove is new visual corroboration that Assad’s government is guilty of mass war crimes against its own citizens, just as it appeared to regain some international standing. The photographs were released as delegates from the Syrian government and the opposition began gathering in Switzerland for long-awaited talks to find a political solution to end almost three years of civil war.
Obama administration officials, who never fully backed the rebel movement to oust Assad, had shifted instead to pushing his opponents to sit down with his envoys. Assad had begun talking confidently of his essential role in a common struggle against terrorist threats.
But just as the use of chemical weapons last summer spurred Washington to threaten military action against Assad’s government, prompting it to give up its chemical arsenal, the new dossier complicates hopes among some of Assad’s supporters that the West has no choice but to reach a political accommodation with him.
Human rights groups had already documented the government’s systematic use of torture, forced disappearances and other abuses. But the quantity and the chilling detail of the visual evidence, if authenticated, may be much harder to dismiss, even in a conflict that has often been defined by dueling images of atrocities on both sides.
The Qatari government hired a team of international law experts with experience prosecuting war crimes to validate the photographs and to help explain what they reveal. The investigators say releasing more images might identify the defector, endangering his family or former colleagues, and, they say, they cannot release the images out of respect for the victims’ families.
Assad’s enemies say they hope the leak, first reported in The Guardian and on CNN, will cause enough revulsion in the West to prevent any deal that might leave him in place, or perhaps prod the West into more muscular steps to remove him, just as the disclosure of the Serbian massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 moved NATO to launch airstrikes in the Balkans.
But even the most determined advocates of Western intervention say the images may dramatize the moral cost of inaction but are unlikely to change it, given the apparent paucity of solutions to the crisis and the U.S. aversion to another entanglement in the Middle East.
“I feel like we have had at least one or two Srebrenica moments in Syria already,” said Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has pushed for U.S. action. “The White House has completely hardened itself to whatever horrendous news might come out of Syria because the president doesn’t want to get involved.”
The photos were made public by an anonymous military policeman who had a grim role in the bureaucracy of the Syrian security apparatus, according to a report assessing the photos’ veracity.
The team, which included three legal experts with experience in war crimes prosecutions and three forensic analysts, interviewed Caesar extensively, examined the photos and deemed them to be credible evidence that could support charges of crimes against humanity and possibly war crimes.
“It is very rare to have this kind of government-backed, industrial, machinelike, systematic torture and killing of human beings, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Nuremberg,” said David Crane, an investigator involved in examining the photos, who previously indicted President Charles G. Taylor of Liberia.
That Qatar, which has bankrolled the rebels, funded the project is also likely to raise questions, though the investigators say they worked freely.
The Syrian government, which characterizes the insurgency as terrorist campaign backed by foreign powers, has not commented on the report.
At the site of the peace conference, a Syrian journalist who supports the government said the timing of the release suggested a plan to undermine the Syrian government, and he questioned the photos’ authenticity.
“Who are these people?” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “Are they innocent political prisoners or are they al-Qaida?”
Human rights groups have long accused the Syrian government of such systematic abuses, especially since the start of the uprising three years ago.
“If these photographs are authentic, the torture documented is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the atrocities that are happening across the country,” said Lama Fakih, one author of a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch based on interviews with more than 200 former detainees and inspections of former government torture facilities in rebel-held territory.
In Washington, Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said the images “show systematic violations of Syrians’ human rights.”
The department is “committed to ensuring that Bashar Assad, who is the one responsible for these horrific images, cannot go on leading his country,” she said, through efforts that include through the peace conference with his government.
While the report’s authors hope it will create momentum for the prosecution of war crimes in Syria, they acknowledge that international politics are likely to block such action. Russia, a major Syrian ally, would probably veto any effort by the U.N. Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.