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France issues 'historic' arrest warrant for Syria's Assad

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a press conference with Iraq's prime minister in Damascus on July 16, 2023, as Assad's engagement with Middle East countries increases
— Paris (AFP)

France has issued an international arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused of complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes over chemical attacks in 2013, plaintiffs in the case said Wednesday.

In one of the more than decade-long conflict's many horrors, sarin gas attacks saw more than 1,400 people suffocate to death near Damascus in August 2013.

The organisations that filed a legal complaint hailed the move, saying it was the first time a sitting head of state had become the subject of an arrest warrant in another country for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Three other international warrants were also issued for the arrests of Assad's brother Maher, the de-facto chief of the Fourth Division, Syrian army's elite military unit, and two generals. The Paris court's unit concerned with crimes against humanity has been investigating the chemical attacks since 2021.

France can prosecute alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

A judicial source, who asked not to be named, confirmed the issuing of the four warrants by investigating magistrates of the Paris court's crimes against humanity section.

- 'Historic moment' -

The probe followed a complaint filed by the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) NGO, lawyers' association Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and the Syrian Archive, an organisation documenting human rights violations in Syria.

"It's a huge development," SCM president Mazen Darwish said of the warrant for Assad's arrest.

"An independent jurisdiction is recognising that the chemical attack couldn't have happened without the knowledge of the Syrian president, that he has responsibility and should be held accountable," he told AFP.

The case against Assad and the others was backed by first-hand witness accounts and deep analysis of the Syrian military chain of command, Darwish said.

"This is a historic moment — with this case, France has an opportunity to establish the principle that there is no immunity for the most serious international crimes, even at the highest level," Steve Kostas of the Open Society Justice Initiative was quoted as saying in a statement.

-'Chain of command' -

According to a source close to the investigation, the arrest warrants were the culmination of "painstaking work" by investigators from France's specialised OCLCH unit tracking international crimes.

The goal was to "go as far up the chain of command as possible," the source said.

"If you stop at the helicopter pilot who dropped the bomb, he will be able to say 'I only carried out orders'. The further back you go, the greater the responsibility."

Activists in 2013 posted amateur videos on YouTube said to show the effects of the attack, including footage of dozens of corpses, many of them children, stretched out on the ground.

Other images showed unconscious children, people foaming at the mouth and doctors apparently giving them oxygen to help them breathe.

The scenes provoked revulsion and condemnation around the globe.

A United Nations report later said there was clear evidence of sarin gas use.

Syria agreed in 2013 to join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) global watchdog and give up all chemical weapons.

The OPCW has since blamed Damascus for a series of chemical attacks during the civil war.

The Syrian government has denied the allegations, which have also sparked legal complaints in Germany and other European countries.

Syria's civil war broke out in 2011 after Assad's repression of peaceful demonstrations escalated into a deadly conflict that pulled in foreign powers and global jihadists.

The war has killed more than half a million people and displaced half of the country's pre-war population.

On Thursday, the International Court of Justice will hand down a ruling on a case brought against Syria over torturing tens of thousands of its own people.

The first international case over the civil war is being brought by Canada and the Netherlands, and aims to get the ICJ to order the Syrian government to stop what the plaintiffs called the "widespread and pervasive" system of torture still in place.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who propped up Assad by intervening in the conflict militarily in 2015, himself became the target of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for war crimes in Ukraine in March.