France issues arrest warrants for Syrian army officers accused of bombing civilians

Former defence minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij is accused of complicity in an alleged war crime that killed a French-Syrian national in 2017

Syrian senior commanders who served under President Bashar Al Assad are accused by a French court of complicity in war crimes against civilians. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

French investigators have issued international arrest warrants for four senior Syrian army officers believed to have ordered a 2017 bombardment that killed a French-Syrian civilian, a lawyer involved in the case has told The National.

“The investigation has brought to light the deliberate targeting of the Syrian civilian population which took place in Deraa but also in many other cities across the country,” said lawyer Clemence Bectarte, who represents French-Syrian national Omar Abou Nabout.

In 2017, he filed a complaint in France against the Syrian state for deliberately targeting a three-storey building in the southwestern city of Deraa, killing his father, Salah, 63.

This is the second time that France issued arrest warrants against high-ranking Syrian officials accused of war crimes following the outbreak of a civil war in 2011.

But it is the first time that Syrian army officials have faced warrants for alleged war crimes committed during a military operation.

They include former defence minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij, former chief of general staff Ali Abdullah Ayoub, former air force chief Ahmed Mohamed Baloul, and Ali Safetli, commander of the 64th Helicopter Brigade at the time.

“This case is emblematic,” said the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression on Thursday. The Paris-based organisation is a co-plaintiff in the case.

“After six years of determination, I am proud of myself today because my call for accountability of war criminals and my father’s killers has become a reality,” said Mr Abou Nabout, who lives in Paris.

“My goal is to prevent war criminals from impunity.”

In 2018, France issued arrest warrants against three Syrian officials including Ali Mamlouk, a special adviser to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, for the death in detention of two French-Syrian nationals, Patrick and Mazzen Dabbagh.

A trial in the absence of the accused has been announced for May in Paris.

A French language teacher, Salah Abou Nabout was born in Deraa and had obtained French citizenship through his parents. He was detained in 2013 for a year and seven months.

No charges were held against him when he was presented in front of a Syrian judge, according to Ms Bectarte. “He was arrested like many other Syrians for no reason. He was not a political activist,” she said.

After he was released, Salah Abou Nabout returned to live in the family-owned building in Deraa. His family fled for France. A Jordanian association ran a school on the building's ground floor.

No children were present the day it was flattened by a barrel bomb, a device filled with metal fragments to cause high levels of damage, launched by a Syrian Air Force helicopter, said Ms Bectarte.

Salah Abou Nabout was reportedly the only person killed that day. But thousands more Syrians died in similar bombings since the start of the war, the SCM has claimed.

Between June 3 and June 17, 2017, Deraa was targeted by “more than 2,000 air and ground raids,” according to the NGO.

“Schools, hospitals, and medical personnel have been deliberately and systematically targeted by Syrian government forces for the past decade,” said SCM's founder and general director Mazen Darwish.

“This is the first time the judiciary has examined the role of the Syrian Air Force in targeting vital installations and using barrel bombs. These arrest warrants are a step towards accountability for these crimes and achieving justice for their victims,” he added.

The SCM said that it investigated Salah Abou Nabout's death with the help of defectors from the Syrian military and security services as well as Syrian opposition news websites Zamal al-Wasl and Jisr.

This is the first time the SCM, which has supported numerous judicial cases related to the Syrian civil war in Europe, has worked on a case “completely independently and without international partners,” it said.

It remains unlikely that Syrian officials named in French arrest warrants will be detained anytime soon, said Ms Bectarte.

“But it's important to keep proof of these crimes for the fight for justice for Syrians,” she said.

“One day, this proof will hopefully be used for a transitional justice process in Syria.”

Updated: October 19, 2023, 5:59 PM