French prosecutors seek arrest of two Syrian ex-ministers over 2017 bomb

By Layli Foroudi, Maya Gebeily and Stephanie van den Berg

PARIS/BEIRUT (Reuters) – French prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for two Syrian ex-defence ministers over a 2017 bomb that killed a French-Syrian man, a source said, in an unprecedented case that may trigger more quests for accountability in the 12-year war. 

Investigators at the Paris Tribunal are accusing Fahed Jassem al-Fraij and Ali Abdallah Aroub of responsibility for the barrel bomb in south Syria that killed Salah Abou Nabout at his home, according to the source familiar with the case.

Al-Fraij was defence minister and commander in chief of the army at the time while Aroub was chief of staff of the armed forces, later promoted to defence minister.

The pair’s whereabouts were unknown and they could not be reached for comment.

Warrants were also issued for two other high-ranking officers, the source said.

Nabout died on June 7, 2017, when a barrel stuffed with explosives hit his three-storey home, which also served as a school, in the city of Daraa, said Nabout’s son Omar.

The crude weapon has been used extensively by government forces, U.N. investigators say, generally dropped from helicopters without accurate aim. Syria denies their use.

Syrian authorities could not be reached for comment on the warrants, but Damascus has repeatedly denied accusations of indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

    The Paris Tribunal declined to comment on the case.

Nabout’s son Omar, a 21-year-old refugee in France at the time of his father’s death, and the Paris-based Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCMFE) both welcomed the arrest warrants.

If he could talk to his father now, Omar said in a video interview, “I would tell him to sleep in peace, because the criminals will be held to account.”


SCMFE head Mazen Darwish said the warrants could pave the way for further investigations on indiscriminate bombardment both around war-ravaged Syria and in other places like Ukraine or the Palestinian territories.

“It’s the first time there’s a case regarding the targeting of civilian infrastructure, specifically a school,” for Syria, he told Reuters.

    Syria’s conflict began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces responded with a brutal crackdown. As Assad began losing territory, his air force bombed rebel-held towns and were supported by Russian air strikes.

Both Syrian and Russian strikes hit open-air markets, hospitals, schools, and homes in what U.N. experts have said were indiscriminate bombardments and potential war crimes.

    In a 2021 report, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said the government had dropped nearly 82,000 barrel bombs in nine years, killing over 11,000 civilians.

    But there has been no accountability through Syrian courts, which critics say only serve Assad’s interests.

The head of a U.N. body seeking justice for atrocities in Syria said “universal jurisdiction” cases like the one in France, where perpetrators can be held accountable abroad for serious crimes, offer an important path for victims.

    “Without universal jurisdiction, we would be left with extremely few opportunities of justice. So these cases are really important,” Catherine Marchi-Uhel of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) told Reuters.

    There have been several legal proceedings in European countries to try Syrian suspects of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The cases so far in France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands have focused on government officials involved in the Syrian detention system and crimes by members of anti-government militias.

(Reporting Maya Gebeily in Beirut, Stephanie Van Den Berg in The Hague and Layli Foroudi in Paris; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)