French investigative judges have issued an international arrest warrant for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria that accuses him of complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity over the deadly use of chemical weapons against his own people, a judicial official said on Wednesday.
The move was a major step to hold Mr. al-Assad and his circle accountable for some of the worst atrocities committed in the yearslong Syria conflict.
In the absence of any international court or tribunal that has jurisdiction over Syrian crimes, a patchwork of efforts for accountability has been underway for some time. Several countries, including Germany, Sweden and France, have launched prosecutions of individuals — mostly of low-level members of the Syrian security forces.
A special war crimes unit in the French judiciary has been investigating a complaint against Mr. al-Assad and his close associates that was filed in March 2021 by three international human rights groups.
The French judicial official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case, confirmed on Wednesday that the warrant for Mr. al-Assad accusing him of complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity had been signed a day earlier. Warrants also were issued for the Syrian leader’s brother, Maher al-Assad, and two senior officials.
The complaint related to the August 2013 attacks in the Syrian city of Douma and the region of Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus — attacks that the United States government and others said killed more than 1,400 people.
Photos and videos of the victims of those attacks convulsing and foaming at the mouth shocked the world and provoked calls for accountability, which to date has been elusive.
Mr. al-Assad has denied using chemical weapons. More than 300 chemical weapons attacks in Syria have been documented by experts.
The French judges’ move appeared to be the first time that a national court has issued a warrant for the sitting president of another country on suspicion of war crimes. The chances of Mr. al-Assad landing in a French court were slim, but trials in absentia are permitted in France.
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.