DAMASCUS - 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 in the Syrian conflict.
A joint inquiry for the United Nations (UN) 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 2014-15, including 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.
The Assads could not be reached for comment but a Syrian government official said 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 the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group.
According to a document 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 the source, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. Reuters was unable to independently review the evidence or to verify it.
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 organizations responsible for chemical attacks in Syria.
Virginia Gamba, the head of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, 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.
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 (ICC), 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.
"The ICC is concerned about any country where crimes are reported to be committed," a spokesman for the court said when asked for comment. "Unless Syria accepts the ICC jurisdiction, the only way that (the) ICC would have jurisdiction over the situation would be through a referral by the Security Council."
The list seen by Reuters could form the basis for the inquiry team's investigations this year, according to the source. It is unclear whether the United Nations or OPCW will publish the list separately.
The list identifies 15 people "to be scrutinized in relation to use of CW (chemical weapons) by Syrian Arab Republic Armed Forces in 2014 and 2015". It does not specify what role they are suspected of playing, but lists their titles.
It is split into three sections. The first, titled "Inner Circle President" lists six people including Assad, his brother who commands the elite 4th Armoured Division, the defense minister and the head of military intelligence.
The second section names the air force chief as well as four commanders of air force divisions. They include the heads of the 22nd Air Force Division and the 63rd Helicopter Brigade, units that the inquiry has previously said dropped chlorine bombs.
The third part of the list - "Other relevant Senior Mil Personnel" - names two colonels and two major-generals.