A French court issued a warrant for Syria’s president and senior Syrian officials for allegedly using banned chemical weapons against civilians, marking the first non-International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for a head of state.
The warrant, which applies to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad and two other senior officials, follows a criminal investigation into chemical attacks in the town of Douma and the district of Eastern Ghouta in August 2013, which Reuters reported had killed more than 1,000 people.
“The president is responsible for many crimes in Syria – but with this type of weapon in particular – sarin gas – it’s impossible to jump over the gap (of his involvement),” said Mazen Darwish, lawyer and founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), one of the groups that filed the suit.
Darwish called the warrant a “new victory for the victims, their families and survivors” of the attacks.
Assad’s brother served as the de-facto chief of an elite Syrian military unit, and the two other officials may have served as armed forces generals, according to French outlet Le Monde.
The Paris court opened an investigation into the attacks starting in 2021 after SCM, the Syrian Archive and the lawyers’ association Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) filed the lawsuit against the Syrian government.
According to Le Monde, Syria agreed in 2013 to join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and give up all such weapons, but the group has since blamed Damascus for a series of chemical attacks with banned substances during the country’s ongoing civil war.
Syria’s government has denied all allegations, leading to legal complaints from several countries, but France took the extraordinary step of issuing a warrant from its own “universal” jurisdiction, which it argues extends globally on the matter of chemical weapons.
An Amnesty International report for 2022-23 on human rights abuses and violations around the world noted that “economic and social conditions deteriorated” in Syria even as active hostilities have decreased, with parties committing “gross” human rights abuses “with impunity,” including “war crimes.”
The Syrian government is accused of killing over 3,000 Syrian Palestinians, including some who died from torture, between March 2011 and July 2020, with hundreds more imprisoned and dozens “forcibly disappeared,” according to a 2020 report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. This has earned Assad the nickname the “Butcher of Damascus.”
Assad has come back into international focus this year as he has increasingly participated in Arab League summits and discussions on key global issues, including a meeting held over the weekend among leaders in the Middle East to address the ongoing situation in the Gaza Strip.
Assad and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi attended Sunday’s conference in Saudi Arabia, where leaders of the Muslim world ostensibly aimed to figure out how to de-escalate the conflict in Gaza even as they condemn Israel for its operations, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The United Nations last week passed multiple resolutions against Israel introduced by Syria, condemning Israel in one case for the “exploitation, damage, cause of loss or depletion and endangerment” in the Golan Heights region of Syria.
“These are Arab lands,” the representative of Syria said after the vote. “They will return to their original legitimate owners sooner or later.”
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.