PARIS – Chemical munitions experts have been gathering information for years that the Syrian government has used these banned weapons against its own people, a war crime that has so far gone unpunished and has been ridiculed by President Bashar al-Assad.
Now, the first criminal investigations against Mr Assad and his aides over the use of chemical weapons could begin soon.
In a major step to hold Mr Assad and his circle accountable for some of the worst atrocities committed in Syria’s decade-long conflict, judges from a special war crimes unit at the French Palace of Justice have received a complaint of chemical attacks. weapons in Syria filed by three international human rights groups.
Along with a similar complaint filed in Germany in October last year, the French complaint, filed on Monday and published on Tuesday, opens a new front to ensure that some form of justice for chemical weapons crimes is imposed on Mr Assad and its hierarchy.
If nothing else, criminal investigations in France and Germany could significantly complicate the future of Mr Al-Assad, who proved to be largely a winner in the Syrian war but with pariah status, blocking the international aid needed to rebuild his country.
Obtaining such assistance may become even more difficult if Mr Assad and his senior echelons are accused of prosecuting war crimes in European courts, even if they consider such proceedings to be illegitimate. Nor will millions of Syrians who have fled to Europe and elsewhere as refugees be likely to return home.
Steve Costas, a senior lawyer for the grievance group in France, said he was focusing on the August 2013 events in the city of Duma and the eastern Guta region near Damascus, coordinated attacks that the United States government said have killed more than 1,400 people, making them the deadliest use of chemical weapons in this century.
The victims of these attacks, who inhaled a sarinic nerve agent or chlorine fumes from bombs, are only a small fraction of the estimated 400,000 people killed since the start of the war in Syria in March 2011.
More than 300 chemical weapons attacks in Syria have been documented by experts, including photos and videos of adults and children convulsing, gasping for air and often suffocating.
Many of these images have been published and shocked the world. To date, no one has had to answer for them.
“We want the French to conduct an independent investigation and eventually issue arrest warrants against those responsible for these crimes against civilians,” said Mr Costas, a senior lawyer with the London-based Open Society Justice Initiative.
“We know that high-level perpetrators will not be arrested soon,” he said. But cases need to be built now, he said, to ensure prosecution in the future.
The other two groups involved are the Syrian Archives, the Documentation Center in Berlin, and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, based in Paris.
Witnesses say they can bring not only survivors of the attacks, but also former members of the government who are connected to the arsenal of banned chemical weapons or have knowledge of its work.
The declaration comes amid speculation about some countries’ actions for closer ties with Damascus, an unofficial acknowledgment that Mr Assad has not been defeated. There was also talk of planning a reconstruction phase to provide important contracts and facilitate the return of refugees.
But Western countries, even those that have taken in significant numbers of refugees, are adamant that impunity for crime is not an option for future peace agreements or normalization. So far, only limited steps have been taken to hold senior Syrians accountable.
Russia and China have blocked the way to the International Criminal Court for any prosecution of Syrian atrocities, using their veto in the UN Security Council, which can grant jurisdiction to the ICC.
“After 10 years and all these crimes, there is no reaction from the international community, so the victims themselves are trying to knock on all doors,” said Mazen Darwish, an activist and former Syrian prisoner who founded the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.
“People die every day,” he said.
In the absence of an international tribunal with jurisdiction over crimes in Syria, various accountability efforts have been under way for some time. Several countries, including Germany, Sweden and France, are persecuting or have already convicted people found among the many Syrian refugees in Europe.
They are mostly members of a low-level Islamic State or Syrian security force accused of human rights abuses.
But the complaint filed in Paris and a similar one filed by the same group in Germany is true aimed for the first time at the highest level of the Syrian government on the issue of chemical weapons – both for past attacks and for what the complaints call a secret program that grossly violates international law.
The group’s complaint in Germany was filed in October with the federal prosecutor in Karlsruhe. It focuses on the sarin nerve agent attack in Eastern Guta in 2013 and in the rebel-controlled village of Han Sheikhoun in 2017.
Both France and Germany are adopting a form of universal jurisdiction that gives their national courts the power to prosecute persons accused of horrific crimes committed everywhere.
Mr Costas said the French corporate liability law could also provide a rationale for introducing evidence for companies supplying chemicals and equipment to Syria for the banned chemical weapons arsenal.
The United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have conducted investigations since the 2013 attack in Syria, but the evidence they gathered has never led to any accountability and has never identified the perpetrators by name.
The request for a criminal investigation is based in part on a two-year study of the Syrian chemical weapons program, which goes beyond what other international investigations have done, Mr Costas said. The study relies on multiple sources, he said, including deserters, former insiders, employees, engineers and people directly or knowledgeable about the program.
Gregory Koblenz, a chemical and biological weapons expert and professor at George Mason University who reviewed the study, said that while there were many open source materials, “this reveals new information from deserters and insiders.”
Mr Koblenz called it “the most comprehensive and detailed account of the Syrian weapons program available, perhaps outside the intelligence services.” It outlines new details about the command chain and shows how large and complex this program was. And he can name names. “
The complaint, filed in Paris, also makes extensive use of the Syrian archives, which hold more than 3 million videos sent by Syrian activists. It is also based on data from the Global Institute for Public Policy, a research group in Berlin.
Tobias Schneider, a researcher at the institute, said he had tested 349 attacks in the last decade, “significantly more than is generally known”. On the other hand, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has investigated only 39 attacks due to what the organization has identified as limited resources.
Mr Dazen, who spent three years in prison in Syria and now lives in Paris, said the fight against chemical weapons was more than just attacks in his country.
“If they are not expelled, no place will be safe,” he said. “What’s next? They can be used on the Champs-Elysees.”