University denies Syria funding claims

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A university has dismissed criticism of one of its academic research centres after claims it had received funding from people connected to the current Syrian regime.

The University of St Andrews launched an internal review of its Centre for Syrian Studies (CSS) following accusations that a donation had been arranged by Sami Khiyami, the Syrian ambassador to the UK.

The Guardian newspaper reported last week that the Fife-based university, where Prince William and his new wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, both studied, also had figures closely associated with the Damascus regime on the centre's board of advisors.

These figures allegedly included Fawaz Akhras, a British-based cardiologist, who, the paper said, is president Bashar al-Assad's father-in-law.

A review team at the university, led by deputy principal Professor Chris Hawkesworth, said media reports had presented facts "selectively" and in a manner which appeared "designed to prey" on current concerns about the actions of the ruling regime in Syria.

The team added that the central claim of the newspaper report - that funding for the centre was "arranged" by the Syrian ambassador - was "highly misleading".

It concluded that the university had found "no evidence" that the centre's research outcomes had been prejudiced or that its links to a cross-section of Syrian interests were inappropriate.

A statement was released on behalf of the review team which said: "The centre was established in 2006 to foster scholarship and dialogue about contemporary Syria - particularly in the areas of economic and political reform, and security and foreign policy issues - as well as exchanges between Syrian and other scholars.

"The establishment of the centre was supported by the Foreign Office.

"In 2006, the director of the centre, Professor Raymond Hinnebusch, was keen to find a donor or donors to assist in funding the establishment of the centre.

"He sought the advice of the Syrian Embassy.

"The embassy introduced Professor Hinnebusch to Mr Ayman Asfari, the prominent British and Syrian businessman and founder of the Asfari Foundation, a recognised UK charity with a range of philanthropic interests.

"The university met Mr Asfari privately to begin discussions on a potential donation.

"Neither the Syrian Embassy nor the ambassador was involved in those discussions, nor did they in any way 'arrange' the subsequent generous donation.

"The motivation for funding the St Andrews centre was two-fold - addressing the fact that, due to the authoritarian nature of the ruling regime, there is no tradition of independent scholarship about the country and much international ignorance about Syria and that, additionally, since there were indications the regime was preparing to undertake political and economic reform, providing a platform for academic study of social economic conditions in the country would be the necessary precursor to such reforms (and the country's subsequent integration into the world economy).

"The CSS sponsors regular conferences in St Andrews, London and Damascus.

"Invited participants include a mix of Syrian scholars or writers plus non-Syrian specialists on Syria.

"As an academic institution recognised internationally for the quality of our teaching and research, we believe it is our duty to engage actively in local, national and international current affairs.

"We have found no evidence that the source of funding for the CSS prejudices the outcome of our research and we robustly refute the allegation that we should be in any way embarrassed by the Asfari Foundation's support of the Centre for Syrian Studies or the centre's contacts."

Niall Scott, a spokesman for the University of St Andrews, said previously: "The CSS is an independent academic centre established to undertake research on contemporary Syria, its role in the modern world and economic and political reform in that country.

"It was established with the assistance of a £105,000 donation from the Asfari Foundation, a recognised UK charity, in 2007. This is the only external funding the centre has received.

"The salaries of CSS staff are paid directly by the university.

"Its board of advisers comprises a cross-section of Syrian interests and viewpoints."

The university's website states: "The mission of the centre is to foster scholarship and dialogue about Syria and exchanges between Syrian and British scholars and others.

"It will undertake research on contemporary Syria, specifically on economic and political reform in Syria and on security and foreign policy issues concerning Syria."