Lib Dem peer among high-profile British figures attending 'regime PR exercise’ conference in Syria

Controversial conference is the first event organised by the British Syrian Society in recent years

Sunday 30 October 2016 14:50
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his wife Asma (L) in Paris in a file photograph from 2008
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his wife Asma (L) in Paris in a file photograph from 2008

Several British academics and journalists are attending a conference organised by President Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law in the Syrian capital of Damascus, in a move which has been called a “mistake” by anti-regime critics.

The two-day conference, which begins on Sunday, will discuss the “ramifications of the war in Syria”.

Liberal Democrats peer Raymond Asquith, or Lord Oxford, former special forces officer Major General John Holmes, and research analyst Kamal Alam of think tank Rusi, are among those expected to speak alongside Syrian government representatives.

Journalists for international media outlets were also invited to attend.

It has been organised by the London-based British Syrian Society's founder Fawaz Akhras, the father of Mr Assad's wife Asma, who has kept a low media profile since war broke out in country in 2011, but used to regularly organise conferences and talks between Syrian and UK politicians.

Several analysts on the war in Syria have criticised those who have chosen to take part in the weekend’s workshop, which has been dubbed a "PR exercise" by Chris Doyle of the Council for British-Arab Understanding (Caabu).

“The regime is trying to energise its public diplomacy and public outreach in Britain. They are trying to maintain this is a neutral conference. It’s simply not. The speakers are senior regime figures, plus others who are extremely supportive,” he told The Guardian.

“The British delegates are merely reinforcing the regime's narrative that it's business as usual as they [the regime] carpet-bomb Aleppo and other Syrian cities. It's wrong to take part. If you are involved in track two diplomacy, fine. If you are going on some sort of propaganda conference, no way,” Mr Doyle added.

The Independent has attempted to contact Mr Asquith, Major General Holmes and Mr Alam for comment. When asked by The Guardian, the Liberal Democrats said they were unaware of Mr Asquith’s trip.

Syrian government buses picked up delegates in the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Saturday to drive the short 70 mile (115 kilometre) journey over the border to Damascus. It was unclear at the time of publication whether flights, food and accommodation were being provided by Syrian authorities or by delegates themselves.

The Syrian civil war - now in its sixth year - has left more than 400,000 people dead and created four million refugees, the UN says.

President Assad is currently in the middle of a campaign to retake the last major urban rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, with the help of Russian air strikes.

Successfully recapturing the opposition-held east of the city would greatly bolster the regime, analysts say, although not enough to bring a swift end to Syria’s complicated and multi-sided conflict.

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