Prosecutors ask France's highest court to rule on validity of arrest warrant for Syria's president

NICE, France (AP) — French prosecutors have requested the country's highest court to rule on the validity of the international arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar Assad for alleged complicity in war crimes during Syria’s civil war, according to a statement on Tuesday.

Judges at the Court of Appeal last week ruled that the arrest warrant issued by France for Assad in November is valid and remains in place, rejecting the prosecutors' argument that he has absolute immunity as a serving head of state.

The lawyers for the victims said that ruling was the first time that a national court recognized that personal immunity of a serving head of state is not absolute. They hailed it as a historic judgment and a “giant step forward in the fight against impunity.”

However, the prosecutors filed an appeal in the Court of Cassation, describing it as "necessary from a legal point of view” asking that the highest court examine the issue of personal immunity for a serving head of state as it relates to allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the statement from the prosecutors' office said.

Lawyers representing the victims and non-governmental organizations who filed the complaint against the Syrian president in France are arguing that the prosecutors' appeal is “unjustified."

“The challenge at France's supreme court by the Public Prosecutor's Office threatens once more the victims' relentless efforts to see Bashar Assad finally tried before an independent court,” the lawyers at the Paris Bar, Jeanne Sulzer and Clemence Witt, said in a statement sent to the The Associated Press.

Along with an international arrest warrant for Assad, France's judiciary also issued last November warrants for his brother Maher Assad, the commander of the 4th Armored Division; and two Syrian generals, Ghassan Abbas and Bassam al-Hassan, for alleged complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The crimes include a 2013 chemical attack on then opposition-held Damascus suburbs. Victims of the attack said France’s decision to issue the warrants serves as a reminder of the horrors of Syria’s civil war.

The arrest warrants for president's brother and the two generals are not affected by the appeal.

The four men — the two Assad brothers and the two generals — can be arrested and brought to France for questioning while the investigation into the 2013 attacks in Eastern Ghouta and Douma continues, the lawyers said.

While President Assad is unlikely to face trial in France, international warrants for a serving world leader are very rare and send a strong message about his leadership at a time when some, especially Arab countries, have welcomed him back into the diplomatic fold.

More than 1,000 people were killed and thousands were injured in the August 2013 attacks on Douma and Eastern Ghouta.

The investigation into the attacks — conducted under universal jurisdiction in France by a special unit of the Paris Judicial Court — was opened in 2021, in response to a case filed by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression on behalf of the survivors.

Assad’s government was widely deemed by the international community to be responsible for the sarin gas attack in the then-opposition-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian government and its allies have denied responsibility and said the attack was carried out by opposition forces trying to push for foreign military intervention.

The United States threatened military retaliation in the aftermath of the attack, with then-President Barack Obama saying use of chemical weapons by Assad would be Washington’s “red line.” However, the U.S. public and Congress were wary of a new war, as invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq had turned into quagmires.

Washington settled 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 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.