French Judges Issue Warrant for Syria’s President in War Crimes Case

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 is a dramatic step, albeit a largely symbolic one, toward holding Mr. al-Assad and his circle accountable for some of the worst atrocities committed in the yearslong Syria conflict.

Warrants also were issued for the Syrian leader’s brother, Maher al-Assad, and two senior officials — Gen. Ghassan Abbas and Gen. Bassam al-Hassan — according to the French judicial official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

While it is unlikely that Mr. al-Assad will ever stand trial in France, the warrants offer a measure of comfort to some Syrians that their suffering has not been overlooked.

Efforts to bring Mr. al-Assad to the International Criminal Court have been repeatedly stymied. But several countries, including Germany, Sweden and France, have launched prosecutions of other individuals, mostly low- and mid-level members of the Syrian security forces.

A special war crimes unit in the French judiciary has been quietly investigating a complaint against Mr. al-Assad and his close associates that was filed in March 2021 by three international human rights groups and stood out for addressing the issue of chemical weapons.

The complaint relates 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, making them the world’s deadliest use of chemical weapons in this century.

Photos and videos of the victims of those attacks convulsing and foaming at the mouth after inhaling the lethal nerve agent sarin shocked the world and provoked calls for accountability, which to date has been elusive.

The French judicial official confirmed on Wednesday that the warrants had been signed a day earlier.

“This means so much to us,” Lubna al Kanawati, a witness to a chemical attack in Ghouta who testified before the investigating judges, said. She added: “The most frightening thing is that he can do this again because nothing and no one has stopped him.”

Mr. al-Assad has steadfastly denied using chemical weapons. But more than 300 chemical weapons attacks in Syria have been documented by experts, a grim hallmark of a war that began in early 2011 and killed an estimated 400,000 people.

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 are slim, but the stigma of the warrant could complicate his diplomatic and business relations, which have recently improved after more than a decade of global isolation.

Some international lawyers suggested that the warrants might be challenged on the grounds that sitting presidents have immunity or can only be judged by international tribunals.

Mazen Darwish, a lawyer from Syria who participated in filing the complaint, said he hoped that would not be the case.

“This is a huge legal development,” Mr. Darwish said.

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.