Assad’s father-in-law: the man at the heart of UK-Syrian relations

Cardiologist Fawaz Akhras’s position as political gatekeeper in London has been deeply undermined by son-in-law’s crackdown

Just a few months before his son-in-law launched the bloody crackdown on dissent in Syria that has shocked the international community, Fawaz Akhras was invited to dinner with the Queen.

The Harley Street cardiologist and his wife, Sahar, were asked to attend a state banquet given by the monarch and Prince Philip in honour of the Emir of Qatar in October 2010.

The invitation to the white-tie occasion in the spectacular St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle was a high-water mark in Akhras’s rise in both British and Syrian society. On the British side, he could satisfy himself that he was on a guest list that included the prime minister, David Cameron, the foreign secretary, William Hague, the Prince of Wales and dozens of other British establishment figures. On the Syrian side, he could reflect that his daughter, former banker Asma, had been married to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, for nearly a decade and her reputation was growing as a glamorous and moderating influence on a regime that George Bush included in his “axis of evil”. A PR push would soon bear fruit with Vogue dubbing her a “rose in the desert”.

At 65, Akhras was at the fulcrum of British-Syrian relations, but with the Arab Spring about to unfurl he was to face an extreme test of his principles. The revelation of his apparent role in advising his son-in-law in mitigating negative coverage of his crackdown will stretch his links to the UK establishment to the limit.

By the time of the banquet, he had become a key player in Syrian diplomacy in the UK. In his day job he was a respected cardiologist working at his private clinic and the Cromwell hospital in west London. But through his position as Assad’s father-in-law and by dint of his modest, trustworthy style, he had become a political gatekeeper for Damascus in London and had gathered around him a group of influential supporters. These included the Conservative party donor Wafic Said, Margaret Thatcher’s former chief of staff Lord Powell, and several MPs and business people. But within months, as the bodies piled up in Syria, that support would start draining away, leaving Akhras besieged by criticism and questions about the regime’s judgment that he has struggled to answer.

Akhras was born in Homs, Syria’s third largest city. He emigrated to London in 1973 where he met his wife, Sahar Otri, an official at the Syrian embassy. Their daughter Asma was born in 1975 and they raised her in Acton, where she grew up as Emma, attending a local school and then Queen’s College, a private girls’ school on Harley Street. He completed his postgraduate studies in internal medicine and cardiology at King’s College hospital and lectured at several London medical schools before spending three years in the 1990s chairing the cardiothoracic department at the King Fahed military hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

To some observers, his departure from Syria was typical of a whole generation of educated Syrians who felt that to progress in life they needed to leave the country, which was then led by the repressive Ba’athist president, Hafez al-Assad. Akhras’s daughter’s alliance with Assad’s son Bashar, an eye doctor whom Akhras reportedly met in London, would allow him to become a leading figure among those exiles in rebuilding bridges with their mother country.

Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at Chatham House, said: “When Bashar al-Assad came to power there was optimism among the expats that there was going to be a change from his father, so they started to engage with him and they won some concessions. Bashar allowed them not to do military service so they could go back to Syria again. Akhras became a figurehead of the British Syrians making connections again.”

Akhras was mixing in Arab expat circles in London, according to Shehadi, attending “gatherings of Middle Eastern people over dinners, at weddings and at embassy receptions,” but he was not an overtly political figure.

“The Syrians in London were low-profile but the atmosphere changed when Bashar took over and started engaging with them,” Shehadi added. “They were able to go back to Syria and get involved with charities that Asma was setting up. They were very optimistic about Bashar, and Akhras was part of that.”

Akhras established the British Syrian Society, securing the backing of a host of British establishment figures, among them Lord Steel, the former leader of the Liberal party, and Sir Andrew Green, the former British ambassador to Syria. The society flew MPs to Syria and arranged business conferences. In 2008, Akhras was invited to a Tory gala dinner and he became an unofficial conduit for journalists seeking interviews with the government.

His involvement in Syrian affairs grew again and he became a board member of the centre for Syrian studies at the University of St Andrews, and in September 2010 he set up the Syria Heritage Foundation “to promote and advance education in the arts, culture and heritage of Syria”. Lord Powell joined as a trustee.

But as the violence began in Syria around a year ago, the edifice Akhras had built started to crumble.

“When they started shooting children it was disgusting and that was the end of it for me,” said Richard Spring, a Conservative MP who resigned from the society last year. “On a personal level, Fawaz is an agreeable, modest, understated individual and he is one of the world’s leading cardiologists. I don’t know anyone who dislikes him. I have no idea what is going through his mind. I think he must be aghast.”

Spring said he got involved in the society in 2002 amid hopes that Assad would prove to be a reformer. “In the end, those people who said he was never going to reform were proved right,” he said. “He has proved to be a disappointment to say the least and the whole thing has descended into absolute tragedy.”

The Labour MP Roger Godsiff also quit last year, the society’s records show.

In June 2011, Said complained in an email to Akhras that “the current situation in Syria is simply unacceptable and the continuing killings and violence are indefensible”. He said he would have resigned “had you not been our chairman, because you are my dear friend and I do not want to put you in any way in an awkward or embarrassing position”.

In another email, he voiced “deep upset” to the office of Asma al-Assad in Syria about the situation and said the Syria Heritage Foundation needed to be wound up.

Asked about Akhras, Green told the Guardian: “I have a high opinion of him. He is clearly a capable medic and I have great sympathy with the situation he finds himself in. He has been a good colleague and I don’t want to go further than that.”

Shehadi said: “They are all now in the same position of deep shock and they don’t know what to do. For Akhras it is difficult because it is much more personal.” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

from Robert Booth


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