Private Eye: Update on Syria (6/4/2012)
THE defence of the massacres in Homs by Dr Fawaz Akhras, father of Bashar Assad’s wife Asma (see last Eye), could not have come at a worse time for the British Syrian Society and the Council for the advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Both purport to stand up for the Arab people. But the unwary might be forgiven for suspecting they are keener on defending the dictators who oppress them. Akhras is chairman of the British Syrian Society. The slaughter of Syrians by his son-in-law did not bother him in the least. He compared the uprising against a dictatorship to the London riots and said the death toll of 7,000 was “much
better” than the toll in Libya.
British hacks guessed long ago that he was the Assad family’s enforcer in London. “Informally, Akhras plays a role as gatekeeper for Assad, vetting British journalists who wish to interview the president,” noted the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Ian Black, last year. “He is close to the Syrian ambassador to Britain, the economist Sami Khiyami, who serves with him on the advisory board of the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University.”
As the corpses pile up, St Andrews may have some hard questions to answer on the source of its funding. But maybe the money will dry up for both the university and the lobby groups. Although separate organizations, the British Syrian Society and CAABU are tied together at many levels. Both are favoured by businesses hoping to find contracts in the Middle East and by British conservatives. The British Syrian Society’s directors include Brian Constant, a banker, Sir Gavyn Arthur, a former Lord Mayor of London, and Sir Andrew Green, the former ambassador to Syria and head of Migration Watch UK. They serve alongside Labour MP Andy Love and former broadcaster Martin Short.
Sensing trouble, the Council for Arab-British Understanding is trying to distance itself from the Syria lobby. Chris Doyle, its director, told the Times last week he could not understand why the British Syrian Society’s British directors had not resigned. “If they can’t take a principled stand on the regime, they should step down.”Given the links between the organizations, he may have to do better than that.
Doyle is married to Rim Turkmani, a Syrian national, who until recently worked for the British Syrian Society. In March 2011, after Syrian human rights activist Suhair Atassi had been dragged by the hair by the secret police for taking part in a peaceful demonstration, Turkmani told the BBC life was pretty good for women in Assad’s Syria. Why a woman was even vice-president!
Another CAABU board member, John McHugo, chair of the Lib Dem “Friends of Palestine”, wrote a report on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In his acknowledgements he said: “The Syrian Embassy in London lent its full support to the event and arranged through its good offices for the subsequent printing of this second edition.” In the report, he offered “special thanks” to Shaza Shannan “for her valuable contribution to the organisation of the conference”. Until the Akras disclosures, Shannan was a board member of both CAABU and the British Syrian Society.
Alas, the brown-nosing may have been in vain. CAABU has just launched an emergency appeal. Not to bring aid to the victims of Assad, but “so that it can continue its vital work”. If donors don’t stump up, it says, it “will have to close its office at the end of May”.
The Foreign Office may turn the screws before then. Officials are examining the thousands of leaked Assad emails. “Where we have watertight evidence of association with the Syrian regime we will consider appropriate action,” a spokesman told diplomatic correspondents.
April 2012 Private Eye Issue 1311 06/04/12 – Page 11