French court upholds arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Several countries have condemned the court’s decision and termed the warrant against the Syrian president a violation of international law

June 28, 2024 by Abdul Rahman
Bashar al-Assad meets with Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, February 25, 2019. Photo: Ali Khamenei

Several countries rejected the verdict of an appeal court in Paris which upheld the judgment of a lower court issuing an arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday, June 26. The warrant was issued for Bashar’s alleged complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity during the country’s ongoing war.

The Paris court said that the alleged crimes cannot be considered as part of the official duty of a president and therefore can be separated from the sovereignty of a head of state. The court was disposing of an appeal filed by the France’s National Anti-Terrorism Prosecutors Office (PNAT) which had sought to annul the arrest warrant against Assad on the basis that he, as president of Syria enjoys immunity.

The arrest warrants against Assad, his brother Maher al-Assad and two Syrian generals Ghassan Abbas and Bassam al-Hassan were first issued in November last year by a lower court in France on a petition filed by some of the Syrians who had fled the country during the war and are now living in Europe. The petitioners allege that Assad was directly responsible for the chemical weapons attack on East Ghouta in 2013 then under the control of the western-backed anti-Assad forces.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied its involvement in the attack and several experts and journalists have debunked the allegations of chemical weapons use by Syria. The Syrian government has alleged that anti-Assad forces and its western backers were responsible for the attack as part of their attempts to malign the image of the Assad government and mobilize world opinion against it. Reports claim that the attack killed more than 1,400 people and hundreds others were injured.

At the time, a considerable portion of Syrian territories had been brought under the control of anti-Assad forces backed by both western countries as well as several countries in the region including Turkey, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. With the support of Russia and Iran, the Assad government was able to take back control of most of those territories including East Ghouta in 2018-19.

In international law, warrants issued by the court of a particular country have no practical meaning. However, the French courts’ verdict will be valid for all members of the European Union, and if Assad travels to one of those countries, it would be able to execute the warrant. However, given the state of relations between the EU members and Syria, an Assad visit to Europe is highly unlikely. The verdict, nevertheless, can be seen as a symbolic gesture to hold the Syrian president responsible for alleged war crimes under his watch.

Several countries including Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela have rejected the warrant as illegal. “We reject an arrest warrant against Bashar al-Assad issued in France and with eventual application in the EU, which ignores his immunity as head of state, violates norms of international law and creates a dangerous precedent for the current international system,” said Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.

Venezuela also condemned the ruling and in a statement released by the Foreign Ministry affirmed, “Venezuela expresses its solidarity with brother President Bashar al-Assad, while urging the international community to avoid any excuse that causes extraterritorial interference against the Syrian people and government, since actions of this nature constitute a clear violation of international law enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, and judicial colonialism.”

When the arrest warrant was first issued in November 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Serguei Lavrov had said it was another example of the “bias” in the western legal system.

Over half a million people have been killed in the war in Syria and almost half of the country’s pre-war population has been displaced. The war is now in its 13th year and anti-Assad forces still control some of the country’s northern territories. Though the Assad government has been able to break its isolation in the region and claims to be working to bring normalcy, European countries and the US have imposed unilateral sanctions against Syria crippling its economy and hampering its reconstruction program.