Cardiologist told Bashar al-Assad how to spin Syrian uprising, including rebuttal of apparent child torture footage
A Harley Street cardiologist has been acting as a close adviser to the president of Syria during his regime’s brutal crackdown on anti-government activists, according to a cache of what appear to be emails sent and received by Bashar al-Assad and his wife.
Dr Fawas Akhras, who is the father of Assad’s wife, Asma, used a private email channel to the Syrian leader to offer advice on how the regime should spin its suppression of the uprising, including how best to rebut graphic video footage appearing to show the torture of children by Syrian forces.
The 66-year-old west London-based consultant has until now been regarded as a modernising influence on his son-in-law. He is co-chair of the British Syrian Society, which has said it is “saddened and appalled at the violence and loss of life in Syria”, where more than 8,000 people are believed to have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s rule began a year ago. But a collection of several thousand messages to and from the Assads’ private email accounts obtained by the Guardian appears to show that as the violence escalated in recent months, Akhras offered the Syrian president detailed political and media handling advice as well as moral support in dozens of emails direct to his personal inbox.
The emails were intercepted by members of a Syrian opposition group between June 2011 and February 2012. The Guardian has made extensive attempts to verify their authenticity by cross-checking information in them and contacting individuals whose mails appear in the cache.
The Guardian contacted Akhras at his surgery on Thursday and also approached him via intermediaries inviting him to comment. At the time this article was published he had not responded.
The revelation that Akhras has taken such an active role helping the Syrian regime will create embarrassment for a number of establishment figures with links to him. Fellow directors of the British Syrian Society include Sir Andrew Green, former UK ambassador to Syria, and Sir Gavyn Arthur, former lord mayor of London, while Lord (Charles) Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s former chief of staff, is a trustee of the Syria Heritage Foundation, a British charity which was set up by Akhras.
The string of emails between Akhras and Assad over a nine-month period appear to show that the doctor was particularly concerned about how better to present the regime’s actions internationally. They also reveal a frank and friendly relationship between the two men, with many signed off by Akhras “warmest”.
Late last December, Akhras advised Assad to respond to a Channel 4 film showing video evidence of civilians, including children, being tortured in Syria, by suggesting it could be dismissed as British propaganda aimed at triggering a Syrian genocide. In a direct email to the president he attached an article suggesting as much and said it “might be of some help towards drafting the embassy’s response to [the] Channel Four video”.
Earlier that month he had sent the president and the first lady a 13-point rebuttal of criticisms of the regime, which he said he had drafted to help him in “directing the argument or the discussion toward the other side”. He questioned why the UN should be so concerned about the death toll in Syria given that so many people had died in Libya before the UN security council convened, and suggested the west was hypocritical in criticising the regime, given recent “harsh and inhuman attacks on the demonstrators in Wall Street and London”.
He also recommended highlighting difficulties faced by the “revolutionary democracies” that emerged from the Arab spring: “They are unable to agree on naming a Minister of Interior in one country and failed to form a cabinet for a long time in others and now we see that the majority in some new parliaments are refusing to join or be part of the government programme.”
In the same email he suggested the BBC operated a “facts distortion policy”, deliberately suppressing an interview which suggested the Free Syrian Army had only a small number of supporters. He advised highlighting US torture of prisoners in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib to counter allegations of torture by Syrian forces.
Akhras also wrote to Assad and his wife in December questioning the wisdom of the regime throwing a New Year’s Eve party in Damascus’s Omayyad Square: “Is it the right time?”
On 16 January this year, as international pressure grew on Assad to stand down and the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, described the casualties as “unacceptable”, Akhras urged Assad to launch an English language Syrian state news network “to enable us to address the world of our case in their own language and mentality”. He told Assad it was “an extremely important project to be considered at the highest level”.
Concern over Akhras’s links with the regime had already been growing in private among his British associates. The emails reveal that in June, Wafic Said, the billionaire Syrian-born businessman and director of the British Syrian Society, told Akhras “the current situation in Syria is simply unacceptable and the continuing killings and violence are indefensible”. He said the society should become dormant for the foreseeable future.
Around the same time Said also wrote to the office of Asma Assad, announcing that the Syria Heritage Foundation, a British charity aimed at promoting the country’s arts and culture, must be wound up. He revealed that Lord Powell had written to him saying the charity could not go on because of the crisis. Said, the charity’s chairman, said he was “deeply upset”.
While others associated with the British Syrian Society have distanced themselves from the Assad regime, Akhras has continued to help his son-in-law, in one email even offering advice on central bank policy to maintain the Syrian currency’s value during the crisis. He also sent the president risque jokes from his iPhone, including one about the relative penis sizes of Nicolas Sarkozy, Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama.
In late June he co-ordinated with Assad an itinerary of meetings for Sir Jeffrey Jowell, a leading British constitutional lawyer, who travelled to Damascus last July.
On a number of occasions he drew Assad’s attention to media coverage of the conflict in Syria. In January, he sent a piece from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on the belief among Israeli military intelligence that Assad will fall in 2012 and he highlighted another report that British special forces, the CIA and MI6 are in Syria supporting the armed insurgency.
In an email about the visit of the Arab League delegation to Syria, he wrote to Assad: “It would be very good if the number of each delegate from the arab countries is calculated as a percentage based on the population of each country! This would be a big blow to some!” It appears to be a dig at the influence of Qatar, which called for Arab military intervention in Syria to stop the bloodshed.
The Guardian asked Akhras if he wanted to comment on the emails and his apparent role giving strategic advice to his son-in-law. Akhras said he was busy with a patient. The allegations were then sent to him via text message and passed on to his lawyer.
from Robert Booth