French Arrest Warrants Are First Move Toward Syrian Accountability

On Monday, November 5, victims of Syria’s vicious conflict got a hint of something unimaginable only months ago: criminal accountability for Syrian government officials implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

That’s because French prosecutors issued international arrest warrants for three senior Syrian officials, including Director of the National Security Bureau Major General Ali Mamlouk, Air Force Intelligence chief Major General Jamil Hassan, and a second senior Air Force Intelligence official, Abdel Salam Mahmoud. The warrants specify the three Syrian officials’ alleged role in the disappearance and subsequent murder of two French-Syrian nationals, Mazen Dabbagh and Patrick Dabbagh, after they were detained by Syrian Air Force Intelligence in November 2013.

But the significance of the arrest warrants goes well beyond France stating that it will pursue senior Syrian officials linked to the deaths of French citizens. All three suspects are deeply implicated in the prosecution of a conflict that has claimed the lives of at least 400,000 Syrians and displaced millions more since 2011, and which has featured actions that may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those crimes have included targeted attacks on health care facilities and personnel that have generated a lethal context in which civilians have suffered and died not only from the direct consequences of warfare, but also from denial of adequate medical care, malnutrition, and starvation. In so-called de-escalation zones, hospitals and other health facilities continue to be under constant bombardment and shelling, medical personnel are being killed, and humanitarian aid is subjected to restrictions that impede its timely delivery to populations in need.

The warrants issued this week are an unequivocal indication that, more than seven years into Syria’s grinding conflict, foreign governments are finally willing and able to take concrete legal steps to challenge the impunity enjoyed by Syrian government officials who have been passively or actively complicit in mass killings, torture, and intentional targeting of civilians. And France isn’t alone. In June 2018, German prosecutors likewise issued an international arrest warrant for Major General Hassan alleging his role in the torture, rape, and murder of “hundreds of people between 2011 and 2013.” According to Human Rights Watch, Swedish investigators are pursuing cases against 13 people suspected of committing war crimes in Syria, while German authorities are investigating 17 people suspected of crimes in Syria and Iraq.

The French warrant singled out Abdel Salam Mahmoud for his role in supervising the notorious detention facility at Mezzeh military airport in Damascus that has been the site of horrific abuses during the course of the conflict. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report documented deaths in custody at Mezzeh airport as well as torture of detainees that included beatings, denial of food and water, and electrical shocks.

Research by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) indicates that Mezzeh has also been a site for the torture and killing of Syrian health workers. Mezzeh guards tortured to death Syrian dentist and activist Ayham Moustafa Ghazoul in 2012, four days after he was detained. PHR open-source research also indicates that Air Force Intelligence Directorate personnel, for whom Major General Hassan has command responsibility, detained, tortured, and killed at least 11 medical personnel since 2012.

PHR has documented attacks on hundreds of health care facilities and the killing of more than 800 medical personnel since the start of the conflict as part of an effort to call attention to these crimes and secure evidence to hold perpetrators accountable. Our online, interactive map of Syria provides location information and details on attacks which PHR independently corroborates – 90 percent of which were very likely committed by the Syrian government and its allies. Our visual mapping of the scale and frequency of attacks on health care serves as a daily reminder of the importance of seeking justice and accountability. 

That PHR data is invaluable to legal mechanisms in any countries or jurisdictions that seek to pursue accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. Meanwhile, those French and German arrest warrants for Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud signal to the Syrian people and their oppressors that, sooner or later, justice is coming.

Get Updates from PHR