Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Assad’s French Arrest Warrant: Symbolic Statement or Step Toward Justice?

Assad’s French Arrest Warrant remains an active tool, sparking divergent views on its significance while the Syrian people bear its heaviest burden.

Assad’s French Arrest Warrant
A photo taken on May 22nd, 2021, during a demonstration of the Syrian community against Bashar al-Assad in France’s Rennes. Quentin Vernault/ Hans Lucas/ Hans Lucas via AFP

Hussein Ali Alzoubi

The French arrest warrant issued against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher and his senior aides remains an active legal instrument. According to Tarek Hokan, a lawyer and the director of the Strategic Litigation Project at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), pursuing justice in this matter is an enduring process that must culminate to establish peace in Syria.

The SCM, together with the Civil Rights Defenders Organization, filed a criminal complaint before the French judiciary seeking the arrest of al-Assad for his crimes during the Syrian crisis.

On 15 November 2023, the French judiciary issued arrest warrants for al-Assad and his brother Maher, who serves as the de facto commander of the Fourth Division in the Syrian army. The warrant also included two generals affiliated with the Syrian regime: Ghassan Abbas, director of Branch 450 of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), and Bassam al-Hassan, the presidential adviser for strategic affairs and liaison officer between the presidential palace and the SSRC.

The arrest warrants were issued for charges of complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes over the use of banned sarin gas in attacks launched on Eastern Ghouta and Moadamiyet al-Sham in Rif Dimashq Governorate on 21 August 2013.

According to statements made by the United States and reports from various activists, these attacks resulted in the tragic loss of over a thousand Syrian lives.

In a discussion with Fanack, Hokan mentioned that on 20 December 2023, the French public prosecutor filed an appeal against the arrest warrant’s legality, citing Bashar al-Assad’s presidential immunity as the primary grounds. Hokan considers the appeal request “contradictory.” The prominent Syrian activist and human rights advocate remarked on the situation that “there is compelling evidence establishing al-Assad’s responsibility for the chemical attacks. Nonetheless, the public prosecutor sought the opinion of the Court of Appeal.”

He further elaborated, “From a legal perspective, both the public prosecutor and the party against whom the warrant was issued possess the right to request an appeal. Ironically, the initiator of the appeal was the French public prosecutor, not the Syrian government.”

The issuing of the warrant has raised numerous questions, especially due to its timing, closely following Bashar al-Assad’s return to the Arab League. Notably, al-Assad attended the last Arab summit hosted by Saudi Arabia in November, a move seen as an attempt to bolster his position on both Arab and global stages. Tarek Hokan suggests that the warrant’s timing is not inherently politically motivated. He underscores that the legal procedures, which took a long time, have naturally reached this stage and happened to coincide with recent political events.

Divergent Views

Syrian activists and human rights advocates hold differing opinions on the practical implications of the arrest warrant, pending approval by the French Court of Appeal. Hokan offers his perspective, “Certainly, Bashar al-Assad will avoid travelling to any country with an arrest warrant, given the real risk of apprehension. If he considers foreign visits, he’s likely to choose nations where he feels protected. Nonetheless, the mere existence of an arrest warrant in a country like France carries substantial weight. This development signifies a significant step toward the pursuit of justice.”

In agreement with Hokan’s viewpoint, Syrian journalist Nidal Maalouf describes the situation as “historic.” He contends, “This event is unparalleled in recent history. While some may entertain the idea that al-Assad can evade repercussions, such an outcome is improbable. It forces us to consider not only al-Assad’s political future but also a future in which he will be held accountable for his criminal acts. Al-Assad’s path in history is defined by crimes, demanding an exit through the gate of accountability and punishment.”

Maalouf adds, “Bashar al-Assad has ruined the lives of an entire population. The Syrian people are determined to hold those responsible for the devastation of their lives accountable. History has never seen a leader inflict such profound ruin on his people as Bashar al-Assad has. Therefore, the resolution of this matter depends not only on international determination. It is inconceivable that an individual responsible for such actions continues to lead a normal life without facing the consequences.”

In contrast, journalist Muhammad al-Owaid considers the importance of the warrant less significant. He told Fanack, “I think the political orientation of France under President Emmanuel Macron is different from that under President François Hollande. Since Hollande, France’s involvement in the Syrian issue has waned, and there is now a minimal level of sympathy for the victims.”

He adds, “Political circles within the country no longer appear interested in the Syrian cause. Unlike the engagement seen in Germany’s trials prosecuting those responsible for war crimes against Syrians, they show no reaction to the warrant against Bashar despite its unprecedented nature. Everyone in France knows that the recent arrest warrant has limited significance.”

Al-Owaid justifies his perspective, stating, “France wields more global influence than Germany due to its veto power in the UN Security Council. Moreover, France has deployed its military forces across various regions of the world. It is perhaps by historical coincidence that Germany is ahead in addressing the Syrian crisis. It is crucial to note that Germany’s progress in dealing with the crisis is partly influenced by the arrival of over a million Syrians to the country, leading to the presence of both victims and perpetrators on German soil.”

Hokan attributes the negative perception of the arrest warrant among Syrians to their prevailing frustration: “A pervasive frustration controls the Syrian populace. However, the delivery of justice is not immediate; it’s a gradual process marked by cumulative steps. It’s crucial to keep this case prominent before the global community. Seeking justice in the Syrian context is not a luxury but a necessity. Accountability is essential for establishing peace. Therefore, victims and witnesses play a vital role in overcoming this frustration.”

Long-term Prosecution

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression plays a crucial role in issuing arrest warrants against Bashar al-Assad and key figures in the Syrian regime. According to Hokan, efforts in this case began right after the sarin gas attacks in Eastern Ghouta and Moadamiyet al-Sham.

The centre’s involvement can be traced back to the prominent Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh, who was kidnapped within three months of the attack With lawyer Nazem Hamadi, her husband Wael Hamada, and former detainee Samira Al-Khalil. Zaitouneh meticulously documented all the details of the assault, including its victims.

In March 2020, the SCM, in collaboration with a group of victims, filed a complaint with the French judiciary, invoking the principle of extraterritorial jurisdiction. According to Baladi News, the complaint included a comprehensive array of witness testimonies from the families of victims and survivors. In addition, the complaint relied on the findings of Zaitouneh and her team in the Violations Documentation project.

It also comprised analyses, documentation, photographs and videos. Subsequently, the Office of War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity joined the investigation as a Syrian civilian party. Following this, a consortium of non-Syrian organisations and additional victims linked to the Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons in Syria joined the case.

In this context, Hokan explains, “The issuance of arrest warrants by the French judiciary was grounded in several considerations. Primary among these is the gravity of the committed crime and the enduring trauma it caused, resonating not only within the Syrian populace but across humanity. As established, the international community, through numerous conventions and treaties, has unequivocally declared that the use of chemical weapons should be over. Another factor considered by the French judiciary is the substantial number of victims and injuries resulting from this crime. Additionally, the nature of the Syrian regime’s composition played a pivotal role, leading the judges to the conviction that the decision to deploy such weapons could only have come from the highest authority.”

In a related context, Hokan emphasised the existence of an initiative to create a special court for cases involving the use of chemical weapons. According to Hokan, this project goes beyond the boundaries of the Syrian crisis. He adds, “We face numerous legal and logistical challenges, and our efforts are aimed at identifying practical solutions to ensure the prosecution of all individuals responsible for such crimes.”

Until global decision-makers reach a consensus on establishing the special court, the fate of the Syrian crisis remains uncertain. The growing range of potential outcomes adds complexity to the issue at the local level and is intertwined regionally and globally. The only constant in this uncertain context is that the Syrian people carry the heaviest burden in this tragic situation.

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