Education & Family

St Andrews reviews centre as Syria links highlighted

St Andrews University
Image caption St Andrews said the Syria centre met its high academic and ethical standards

St Andrews University is reviewing the work of its Syria studies centre, amid concerns over a Syrian official's role in securing its funding.

The head of the centre has said it could not have been set up without the intervention of ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami.

St Andrews says the review is because of international concerns about events in Syria.

Rights groups say hundreds have died as security forces put down protests.

Dr Khiyami's invitation to the royal wedding - between two St Andrews alumni - was withdrawn on Thursday, two days after he was summoned by the Foreign Office over the "unacceptable use of force against protesters".

One Syrian human rights group estimates 450 people have been killed as security forces have deployed tanks and live fire.

President Bashar al-Assad's government disputes the Western view that the demonstrations have been non-violent.

The St Andrews review comes two months after the resignation of the director of the London School of Economic, Sir Howard Davies, over dealings with the regime of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi.

The review came to light after the Guardian newspaper highlighted comments made last year by the centre's head, Professor Raymond Hinnebusch, about how funding was obtained.

'Decisive breakthrough'

The centre was established in 2007, with the help of a £105,000 donation from a foundation run by the Syrian-British businessman Ayman Asfari, who is chief executive of Petrofac oil company.

Writing in the Syrian Studies Association Newsletter last year, Professor Hinnebusch, said the project "would have remained a dream except for the intervention of the Syrian ambassador to the UK, Dr Sami al-Khiyami".

Mr Khiyami had "made the decisive breakthrough in finding a philanthropist, Dr Ayman Asfari, who was willing to provide the funding needed to launch the Centre," Professor Hinnebusch added.

The centre was launched with Mr Khiyami on the board of advisers, along with Fawaz Akhras, a cardiologist who is also the father of the London-born wife of the Syrian president.

Dr Akhras is also head of the British-Syrian Society, which has organised visits to Syria for British MPs.

"The University of St Andrews assiduously and regularly reviews its research centres and institutes and is satisfied that the CSS [Centre for Syrian Studies] has met the high academic and ethical standards required to function effectively and independently," the university said in a statement.

"In view, however, of significant international concerns about recent events in Syria, a further review of the centre is currently under way to ensure its high academic standards are maintained.

"From an academic standpoint in international relations, it is critical to be able to engage directly with all aspects of Syrian society in order to better understand the regime," the university said.

Citizens 'murdered'

But the Conservative MP Robert Halfon, a vocal supporter of Israel who has campaigned against universities accepting funding from some Middle Eastern governments with poor human rights records, said that such links raised concerns about academic independence.

"Universities should not be negotiating with representatives of the Syrian regime, which has murdered hundreds of its citizens in recent weeks," Mr Halfon said.

Universities have been under increased scrutiny over funding sources throughout the recent wave of pro-democracy protests in the region.

The London School of Economics faced criticism for its decision to accept a £1.5m donation from a foundation run by Col Gaddafi's son Saif, and to enter into a £2.2m contract between LSE Enterprise, a company linked to the university, to train Libyan professionals and civil servants.

Sir Howard said he had resigned because of two "errors of judgement" - advising the LSE to accept the donation from a foundation run by Col Gaddafi's son Saif, and visiting Libya to advise a government body about financial reforms, for which the university was paid $50,000.

But he defended the training contract, saying many UK organisations dealt with the Libyan regime and it was "curious" to refuse to train officials in developing countries "because of things their regimes might or might not do".

The LSE council has commissioned Lord Woolf, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, to carry out an independent inquiry into the university's relationship with Libya.

It will seek to clarify the extent of the LSE's links with Libya and establish guidelines for future donations.

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