A coalition of human rights groups have filed a criminal complaint against Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons henchmen for their alleged role in two attacks against civilians in 2013 and 2017 that reportedly killed almost 900 people. Researchers for the groups say they’ve collected enough evidence to identify those responsible for the attacks and that it’s time for officials to act.
The three groups—the Justice Initiative, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and the Syrian Archive—filed a complaint with Germany’s public prosecutor accusing senior Syrian officials of using chemical weapons against civilians in a 2013 attack in Ghouta and a subsequent attack in 2017 against the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun.
The coalition, which is representing 17 Syrian victims of the attacks, say they’ve spent the past two years interviewing witnesses and scouring open sources to produce lengthy dossiers of evidence on the two most notorious chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Assad regime.
Hadi al-Khatib, the head of the Syrian Archive, which documents and preserves evidence of war crimes in Syria, urged other European countries to open their own investigations into the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.
“Now is the time for competent European prosecutors to jointly investigate Syria’s chemical weapons program and issue arrest warrants for the Syrian officials responsible,” Khatib said in a press release.
The Syrian army used Sarin-packed rockets against the rebel-held enclave in the suburbs of Damascus followed by a conventional artillery bombardment in 2013, which allegedly killed more than 800 people. In 2017, Syrian Air Force aircraft dropped a Sarin-filled munition on the village of Khan Shaykun, which witnesses said killed between 70 and 100 people.
The groups argue that President Assad and his brother, Maher, who allegedly controls the country’s chemical arsenal should be prosecuted as well as former Syrian military Chief of Staff Imad Ali Abdullah Ayyoub and Air Force commander Major General Ahmad Ballul because of their leading role in Syria’s chain of command.
In addition to those top officials, researchers for the human rights groups urged prosecutors to investigate commanders of the Syrian Air Force’s 22nd Division and its 685th Squadron for their role in the Khan Shaykun attack. In the Ghouta attack, researchers pointed to commanders of the Syrian Army’s 155th Brigade and the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th Brigade and leaders from Syrian Air Force intelligence and the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center as targets for prosecutors to investigate.
German law allows for universal jurisdiction against certain crimes, including war crimes and genocide, regardless of whether or not victims and perpetrators have a connection to Germany. In recent years, German prosecutors have taken a leading role in prosecuting alleged Syrian war criminals accused of carrying out atrocities on behalf of both the Assad regime and rebels since the beginning of the country’s civil war.
Over the summer, German prosecutors put two former Syrian intelligence officers on trial after they fled to Germany as refugees. Authorities say the men engaged in systematic torture of political dissidents on behalf of the Assad regime at the beginning of the civil war.
In 2016, prosecutors convicted a German jihadi on war crimes charges after he posed for pictures with the heads of decapitated Assad regime troops while fighting on the rebel side in the conflict.
A 2013 investigation by the U.N. found “clear and convincing evidence” that rockets loaded with sarin nerve agent were used in attacks on civilians in Ghouta but the investigators’ mandate forbade them from attributing responsibility for the attack. The U.S. government, the European Union, the Arab League, as well as numerous independent investigations by journalists have all indicated that the Syrian military carried out the attacks.
A 2017 investigation by the U.N. found that the Syrian Air Force was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykun, an attack carried out in defiance of the Assad regime’s claims to have destroyed its chemical weapons arsenal.