Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, speaking in London in April 2017. (Getty)

By Track Persia – April 18, 2018

According to a recent Times report, a circle of high-ranking UK academics are using their positions to spread pro-Assad and Russian conspiracy theories. It is not just academia where these circles exist however, they are also apparent within groups of journalistic and former ambassadors.

The academics

The Times reported that the academics were spread out across UK universities including Sheffield, Edinburgh and Leicester, and called themselves the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, or SPM for short.

They had a particular focus on denying the Assad regime’s responsibility for chemical weapons attacks inside Syria – or denying outright that they even happened.

One SPM member, Tim Hayward, a professor of environmental political theory at the University of Edinburgh, uses the hashtag #Syriahoax when discussing chemical weapons attacks and retweeted this about one chemical attack: “White Helmets and terrorist factions staged false flag events and ‘kidnapped, drugged’ children to use as props.”

Other SPM members board members include: Piers Robinson, a professor of politics, society and political journalism and the University of Sheffield; David Blackall, an Australian who believes the CIA is behind the chemical attacks; Tara McCormack, a lecturer in international relations at Leicester University, who once tweeted that it is “an established fact that the White Helmets are basically Al (Qaeda);” and the US academic Mark Crispin Miller, who believes in 9/11 conspiracy theories.

While the University of Sheffield declined to comment, stating it needed further time to investigate; the University of Edinburgh defended their conspiracy theorist under the pretext of freedom of speech, seemingly without a hint of irony.

The most prominent Assadist academic is not an SPM member, however, and is based in the US – Joshua Landis, who is most famous for his somewhat shockingly open sectarian view of the conflict.

Landis, a long-time Syria observer, has in his repertoire of statements: “I went through my mind thinking, Could one say that Shiites are better than Sunnis? And ultimately, I decided that this was a losing effort,” and “It’s a Sunni versus Alawite thing… The hatred, which had largely dissipated during the Assad years, has now come back with a vengeance.”

He married into an Alawi military family, Alawites being the minority religious sect to which Assad belongs, and, accordingly, “has family ties to high-ranking generals inside the Assad regime, as well as some regime personnel who were killed early in the conflict.”

The journalists

Many journalists currently working in the pro-Assad sphere were originally anti-regime and focused their careers on pro-Palestinian news and activism.

Up until December 2015, Max Blumenthal was one of these journalists and he went so far as to resign from the Lebanese Al Akhbar newspaper for its pro-Assad stance. In December 2015, however, he went to RT’s now infamous 10th-anniversary party, which was attended by Putin and Trump’s former US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

Since then, according to this in-depth report on Pulse Media, he has been avowedly pro-Assad, concentrating on smearing the White Helmets, one of the Kremlin’s most dogged talking points. It was they, after all, who were photographing the aftermath and rescuing victims of Russian and other pro-Assad airstrikes.

He is part of a ring of journalists that include Rania Khalek and Vanessa Beeley, the latter of whom accused the former two of stealing her smears against the White Helmets. Khalek would come under fierce condemnation for sharing a video from Beeley showing testimony from a White Helmets volunteer that was obtained under torture.

They may all be on Assad’s side, but just like the nations and militias fighting for him, they each have their own egos and agendas.

Beeley writes for 21st Century Wire, which was founded by an editor who works for Infowars, the now world-famous pro-Trump US conspiracy station headed by Alex Jones. She has been photographed celebrating Assad regime victories with Fares Shehabi, a pro-Assad MP – and she is also a member of the SPM, the aforementioned circle of pro-Assad academics.

Blumenthal’s reversal of position cost his reputation dearly, particularly within the Palestinian activist community. He was publicly disowned in an open letter by hundreds of Palestinian writers and activists. He also engaged in the cyberbullying of 7-year-old Bana al-Abed and mocked the death of Anas al-Basha, who died in an airstrike and was known to dress up as a clown to comfort Syria war-torn children.

Ben Norton is another member of this circle and another convert from opposition to regime activism. He has attempted to delete his numerous early anti-regime articles, but copies are still easy to find online. He was fired from his previous employer, the US news website Salon, after pushing pro-Assad propaganda.

Rania Khalek, who purports to support the Palestinian cause, is also vocally pro-Assad and has had her stories covered by Syrian state news agency SANA and was even invited to a regime-run conference in Damascus. Electronic Intifada, the Palestinian news website where she worked, eventually forced her to resign after attending the controversial conference in Damascus.

Another, older, member of this group is Gareth Porter, who also runs in the same left-wing circles. Porter actually has some history in the field of denying war crimes, having previously tried to absolve the Khmer Rouge for its infamous mass killings. He, too, has focused on denying the regime’s culpability for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

These far-left journalists’ works have all been approvingly shared and cited by Islamophobic US alt-right figures such as Mike Cernovich, Ann Coulter, Pamela Geller and former KK leader David Duke.

The ambassador

Peter Ford, a former UK ambassador to Syria, is the director of a lobby group run by Assad’s father-in-law. He also has claimed that Assad has not carried out chemical weapons attacks.

The British Syrian Society, BSS, was founded by Fawaz Akhras, who the Telegraph reported works as a London-based cardiologist and whose daughter Asma is Assad’s wife.

In 2012, leaked e-mails showed Akhras advising Assad on how to deal with the revolution, as well as how to deal with video footage of Syrians, even Syrian children, being tortured. The same batch of e-mails showed Asma shopping for luxury goods, art and jewellery.

Ford served as UK ambassador to Syria between 2003 and 2006, and was appointed director of the BSS on 28 February 2017 but “receives no remuneration or other material benefit from his directorship of the Society,” according to the Telegraph.

To complete the circle, the two-day conference Rania Khalek was invited to as a speaker in Damascus was arranged by the BSS.

The Times’ report on academics pushing pro-Assad propaganda is important, but it also only one piece of a much larger picture – that of the Assad regime intertwining a complex web of academics, journalists and ambassadors to create an echo chamber to defend it and attack those who oppose it.

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.