France on Wednesday issued international arrest warrants for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his brother and two army generals for their alleged involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to lawyers for Syrian victims.
The warrants issued by French judicial authorities included a 2013 chemical attack on the suburban areas of Damascus held by rebels that killed hundreds of people. Although international warrants for a serving world leader are very rare, they are believed to have sent a strong message against Assad’s controversial leadership.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government on the warrants. Lawyers representing the Syrian victims hailed the decision, saying that it marks a crucial milestone against impunity. “It signifies a positive evolution in case law recognizing the grave nature of the crimes committed,” said advocate Jeanne Sulzer.
Although these persons named in these warrants can be arrested and bought for questioning in France, it is highly unlikely that Assad will be tried and prosecuted in the country. The investigation into the two chemical attacks was opened in 2021 in response to a criminal complaint by the survivors, and filed by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.
Assad’s government was widely deemed by the international community to be responsible for the Aug. 21, 2013, sarin gas attack in the then-opposition-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta. The Syrian government and its allies have denied their responsibility and claimed the Ghouta attack was carried out by opposition forces trying to push for foreign military intervention.
Although the US threatened military retaliation for the attack, Washington’s previous failures in Afghanistan and Iraq forced it to settle for a deal with Moscow for Syria to give up its chemical weapons stockpile.
Syria says it eliminated its chemical arsenal under the 2013 agreement. However, watchdog groups have continued to allege chemical attacks by Syrian government forces since then.
In addition to France, complaints relating to the chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Shaykhun in 2017 were submitted to the authorities in Germany in 2020, and in Sweden in 2021, based on witness testimonies, visual evidence and information about the chain of command of the entities suspected of carrying out the attacks.
Human rights lawyers have long urged prosecutors to open an investigation into crimes during the country’s civil war, arguing that the court could exercise jurisdiction over Syrian civilians forced into Jordan, which is a member of the court. So far, the court has not opened an investigation.
(with AP inputs)