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University refutes criticism of Centre for Syrian Studies

The University of St Andrews has dismissed criticism of its Centre for Syrian Studies after an internal review reaffirmed that the Centre operates to the highest standards of academic independence.

The University undertook a prompt and detailed review of the CSS after its impartiality was called into question by the publication of a front-page report in The Guardian on April 28th.

The report suggested that funding for the Centre had been “arranged” by the Syrian Ambassador to the UK Mr Sami Kiyami, that the revelation was an “embarrassment” to St Andrews and that the centre had inappropriate links to figures close to the ruling regime in Syria.

When a national newspaper uses its front page to challenge academic integrity, it is a serious charge that requires a considered response.

Publishing the conclusions of the review today (Wednesday 4 May) however, a review team led by St Andrews Deputy Principal Professor Chris Hawkesworth said media reports had presented facts selectively and in a manner which appeared designed to prey on very understandable current concerns about the actions of the ruling regime in Syria.

It said the University had found “no evidence” that the centre’s research outcomes had been prejudiced or that its links to a cross-section of Syrian interests were inappropriate.

The central claim of the press reports – that funding for the centre was “arranged” by the Syrian Ambassador was highly misleading, said the review team.

“The Centre was established in 2006 to foster scholarship and dialogue about contemporary Syria – particularly in the areas of economic and political reform, and security and foreign policy issues – as well as exchanges between Syrian and other scholars,” it said.

“The establishment of the Centre was supported by the Foreign Office.

“In 2006, the Director of the Centre, Professor Raymond Hinnebusch, was keen to find a donor or donors to assist in funding the establishment of the Centre. He sought the advice of the Syrian Embassy.  The Embassy introduced Professor Hinnebusch to Mr Ayman Asfari, the prominent British and Syrian businessman and founder of the Asfari Foundation, a recognised UK charity with a range of philanthropic interests.

“The University met Mr Asfari privately to begin discussions on a potential donation. Neither the Syrian Embassy nor the Ambassador was involved in those discussions, nor did they in any way “arrange” the subsequent generous donation.

“The motivation for funding the St Andrews centre was twofold – addressing the fact that, due to the authoritarian nature of the ruling regime there is no tradition of independent scholarship about the country and much international ignorance about Syria and that additionally, since there were indications the regime was preparing to undertake political and economic reform providing a platform for academic study of social economic conditions in the country would be the necessary precursor to such reforms (and the country’s subsequent integration into the world economy).

“The CSS sponsors regular conferences in St Andrews, London and Damascus. Invited participants include a mix of Syrian scholars or writers plus non-Syrian specialists on Syria. The Centre is also well known for its series ‘Papers on Contemporary Syria’, which address issues that include Syria on the Path to Economic Reform (2010), The State and the Political Economy of Reform in Syria (2009), and Changing Regime Discourse and Reform in Syria (2009).

“Some articles are overtly critical of the present regime, and most papers offer analyses of how the Syrian government could move towards capitalism whilst still retaining a social welfare side to its policy.

“The Centre’s Board of Advisers contains a wide spectrum of expertise on Syria including noted journalist Patrick Seale. The board has never been consulted on academic decisions and has no role in determining the direction of research at the Centre.

“As an academic institution recognised internationally for the quality of our teaching and research, we believe it is our duty to engage actively in local, national and international current affairs.

“We have found no evidence that the source of funding for the CSS prejudices the outcome of our research, and we robustly refute the allegation that we should be in any way embarrassed by The Asfari Foundation’s support of the Centre for Syrian Studies or the Centre’s contacts.”

ENDS


Issued by the Press Office

Contact Niall Scott on 01334 462244, 07711 223 062, email ns30@st-andrews.ac.uk

Ref: Syria 040511

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