University urged to pay back £105,000 for Syrian centre

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A SCOTTISH university is under pressure to pay back funding it received with the help from Syria's ambassador to the UK.

The University of St Andrews received more than 100,000 in funding for its Centre for Syrian Studies (CSS) with the assistance of Dr Sami Khiyami.

Dr Khiyami, whose invitation to the royal wedding was withdrawn yesterday, is thought to have played a role in helping the university to obtain the 105,000 from the Asfari Foundation - a UK-based charity launched by Syrian-born British businessman Ayman Asfari.

The Syrian ambassador, who is a member of the CSS advisory board, is thought to have secured funding for the centre after persuading Mr Asfari to release the cash.

Now, St Andrews University has ordered a review of the work of the centre, due to "significant international concerns" over a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the country, in which a reported 400 people have been killed.

The centre's mission statement, listed on the university's website, says the CSS exists to promote "exchanges between Syrian and British scholars".

But a senior Scottish politician yesterday called on the institution to "give thought" and "consider the position" over the funding for the centre, which has a director and about 20 research fellows and associate fellows.

Alex Johnstone, a Tory candidate in the Holyrood elections, who served as an MSP from 1999 to 2011, said the university should be more "aware" of the links between the institution and the Syrian regime.

The university confirmed it has used 105,000 to help set up the centre, which is part of its school of international relations. But it emerged the board of advisers also includes controversial figures closely associated with the Damascus regime, such as Fawaz Akhras, the father-in-law of president Bashar al-Assad.

The university faced a call to hand back the money, amid a claim that the association risks "dragging down the reputation" of the institution.

Mark Ruskell, the Scottish Greens' top candidate for Mid Scotland and Fife, said: "The university authorities are rightly in the hot seat this week, and these links with Syria risk dragging down the reputation of one of Scotland's great institutions.

"It's now time for them either to return the funding, or give it to the Syrian Red Crescent."

Mr Johnstone also suggested the university should look at how it obtains funding for the centre.He said: "The Syrian situation is becoming very controversial, and St Andrews needs to be aware of the level of controversy and to keep a careful eye on the situation.

"The university should consider the position, give thought to it and decide what action to take."

The university said the salaries paid to the centre's staff came "directly" from the university.

A university spokesman said: "The CSS is an independent academic centre established to undertake research on contemporary Syria, its role in the modern world and economic and political reform in that country.

"It was established with the assistance of a 105,000 donation from the Asfari Foundation, a recognised UK charity, in 2007. This is the only external funding the centre has received.

"Its board of advisers comprises a cross-section of Syrian interests and viewpoints. 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.

"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."

A university source said the Syrian officials associated with the centre were "reformers" and the work of the CSS was linked to "providing a platform" for democracy in the country.