International investigators have said for the first time that they suspect President Bashar Al-Assad and his brother are responsible for the use of chemical weapons use in the Syrian conflict, Reuters reported, citing a document they had seen.
A joint inquiry for the United Nations and global watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), had previously identified only military units and did not name any commanders or officials.
Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-2015 – including Al-Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures – indicating the decision to use toxic weapons came from the very top, according to a source familiar with the inquiry.
Reuters cited a Syrian government official as saying accusations that government forces had used chemical weapons had “no basis in truth”. The government has repeatedly denied using such weapons during the civil war, which is almost six years old, saying all the attacks highlighted by the inquiry were the work of “rebels” or Daesh militants.
The list, which has been seen by Reuters but has not been made public, was based on a combination of evidence compiled by the UN-OPCW team in Syria and information from Western and regional intelligence agencies, according to Reuters’ source who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The UN-OPCW inquiry – known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) – is led by a panel of three independent experts, supported by a team of technical and administrative staff. It is mandated by the UN Security Council to identify individuals and organisations responsible for chemical attacks in Syria.
As a result of the JIM’s investigations, the US Treasury sanctioned 18 other high-ranking Assad regime officials and military personnel, as well as identified and designated five branches of the Syrian military as being culpable for WMD attacks against civilians.
Virginia Gamba, the head of the JIM, denied any list of individual suspects had yet been compiled by the inquiry.
“There are no…identification of individuals being considered at this time,” she told Reuters by email.
The use of chemical weapons is banned under international law and its use against civilians constitutes a war crime.
While the inquiry has no judicial powers, any naming of suspects could lead to their prosecution.
Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court, but alleged war crimes could be referred to the court by the Security Council – although splits among global powers over the war make this a distant prospect at present, and something Al-Assad’s ally, Russia, would likely veto.
Syria joined the international Chemical Weapons Convention under a US-Russian deal that followed the deaths of over a thousand civilians in a sarin gas attack in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus in August 2013. WMD use was President Barack Obama’s “red line”, but a US military intervention was averted by the Russian-backed deal.