France issued arrest warrants on Wednesday for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher al-Assad, the de facto chief of the Syrian elite military unit, as well as two high-ranking armed forces generals. The arrest warrants stem from two chemical weapons attacks that occurred in Ghouta, Syria in August 2013.
The warrants are in connection with the ongoing investigation into the two chemical weapons attacks. French officials launched the investigation in 2021 after the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)—alongside several other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—filed a complaint with the French Specialized Unit for Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes of the Paris Judicial Court. The investigation revolves around the alleged responsibility of the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war. The attacks occurred in the city of Douma and the Eastern Ghouta region, which were areas controlled by opposition forces at the time, and resulted in the death of over 1,000 people.
SCM argued that the use of chemical weapons is a jus cogens crime, implying an absolute prohibition against the actions with no immunity based on state leadership. Furthermore, the Chemical Weapons Convention specifically prohibits the use of chemical weapons such as sarin, the substance allegedly employed by the Syrian government. However, Syria only became a party to the convention in October 2013, two months after the attacks. Despite Syria’s denial of using chemical weapons, the UN mission uncovered “clear and convincing” evidence of sarin use. The complaint is also supported by victims’ testimonies and evidence collected by various organizations, including declassified intelligence reports, international organizations’ contributions and open-source information analysis.
The case is based on France’s principle of universal jurisdiction, which permits the prosecution and judgment of torture, crimes against humanity or war crimes when the acts were committed abroad and neither the perpetrator nor the victim is French. Similar complaints regarding the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government have been submitted in Germany and Sweden.
Although issuing these arrest warrants is the next procedural step in the ongoing case, SCM has described it as a “historical judicial precedent.”