France has issued an international arrest warrant for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, accused of complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity over chemical attacks in 2013, a judicial source told The National.
Two judges of a Paris court that specialises in crimes against humanity filed an arrest warrant on Tuesday against Mr Al Assad, his brother Maher and two other senior Syrian officials.
The four men were believed to be involved in the "chemical attacks carried out in August 2013, in particular on August 5 and August 21", in Eastern Ghouta in Syria, said the source.
The Syrian opposition has blamed the government for the attacks that killed more than 1,400 people two years after the start of a civil war that has since killed more than half a million and displaced half of the country's pre-war population.
The French probe follows a legal complaint filed by the non-profit Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), lawyers' association Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) and the Syrian Archive, a body documenting human rights breaches in Syria.
“The French judiciary’s issuance of arrest warrants against the head of state, Bashar Al Assad, and his associates constitutes a historic judicial precedent," said SCM founder and director general Mazen Darwish.
"It is a new victory for the victims, their families, and the survivors and a step on the path to justice and sustainable peace in Syria."
France claims worldwide jurisdiction for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Steve Kostas, senior managing lawyer at OSJI, said “this is the first time a sitting head of state has been the subject of an arrest warrant in another country for war crimes and crimes against humanity."
The International Criminal Court currently has two arrest warrants against heads of state: one against Russian President Vladimir Putin and another against former Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir.
French judges also issued warrants for Ghassam Abbas, director of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, the agency that established Syria's chemical weapons programme, and Bassam Al Hassan, its chief security and liaison officer.
Maher Al Assad was considered complicit in his role as head of the fourth armoured division.
It comes one month after French investigators issued international arrest warrants for four senior Syrian army officers believed to have ordered a 2017 bombardment that killed a French-Syrian civilian.
Three other senior Syrian security officials accused of complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity will be tried in their absence by the Paris Criminal Court in a four-day trial in May.
Activists in 2013 posted videos on YouTube said to show the effects of the chemical attack, including footage of dozens of corpses, many of them children, stretched out on the ground.
Other images showed unconscious children, people foaming at the mouth and doctors apparently giving them oxygen to help them breathe.
The scenes provoked condemnation around the globe.
The Syrian government has denied the allegations, which have also sparked legal complaints in Germany and other European countries.