Revealed: How Britain’s former Syria ambassador appeared on BBC to defend Assad... after quietly taking a job with dictator’s father-in-law

Robert Verkaik
Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, speaking in London in April 2017 - Anadolu

A former British ambassador to Syria who appeared on the BBC to defend the Assad regime had already become a director of a lobby group run by the dictator’s father in law.

Peter Ford, 59, courted controversy this month by claiming that President Bashar al-Assad would not have carried out the chemical gas attack on his own people.

Now the Telegraph can reveal that just weeks before the April 4 attack  Mr Ford had become a director of the controversial British Syrian Society.

This was founded by Fawaz Akhras, a London-based cardiologist whose daughter Asma is married to President Assad, and is closely linked to the regime, frequently accused of acting as its mouthpiece in the west.

According to documents filed at Companies House, Mr Ford - who has been accused of supporting the Syrian regime in the past  - was appointed a director of the society on February 28 this year.

Following the chemical attack in Idlib province, which killed more than 70 people and subsequently led to retaliatory US air strikes on a regime air base, Mr Ford appeared on the BBC casting doubt on whether Assad was responsible.

The former ambassador, who served in Damascus from 2003 to 2006, said it was out of character for the Syrian president to provoke President Trump, just as Washington was taking a softer line compared to Barack Obama's policies on Syria.

He said: "Assad may be cruel, brutal, but he is not mad. It defies belief that he would bring all this on his head. For no military advantage. The site that was hit had no military significance. It made absolutely no sense. It would have angered the Russians for no other reason: it was simply not plausible."

Fawaz Akhras, chairman of the British-Syrian Society and father of Syria's First Lady Asma al-Assad, attends the opening session of the Syrian Banking Conference in Damascus, in 2004 Credit: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Last year Mr Ford wrongly blamed opposition forces for an attack on a UN aid convoy when an investigation proved it was either Russian or Syrian Government aircraft.

The British Syrian Society’s accounts do not show whether Mr Forde receives any payment or remuneration for his role.

However, the society has been mired in controversy in recent years over its role in providing support for President Assad, with a string of senior British figures resigning from its board.

It was accused last year of running a propaganda event in Damascus which was supported by Syrian government officials.

In 2012 Sir Andrew Green, another former British ambassador to Syria and then co-chairman of the society, quit after emails showed Dr Akhras had advised Assad on how to rebut evidence of civilians apparently being tortured.

Dr Akhras used a private email channel to the Syrian leader to offer advice on how the regime should handle criticism of its suppression of the opposition uprising, including how to counter video footage appearing to show the torture of children.

Other resignations included the society's treasurer, Brian Constant and Sir Gavyn Arthur, a former Lord Mayor of London.

Sir Andrew said at the time: "This is all very sad. The BSS has done a lot of useful work but it's very hard to see how it can continue. In the light of the recent revelations, the five British board members have decided to resign."

In an earlier blow to the BSS, in September 2011, the HSBC bank said it would no longer represent the society.

Dr Akhras, a Harley street cardiologist who divides his time between London and Damascus, faced embarrassment over the 2012 leaked emails, which showed he was advising President Assad on how to handle the Syrian crisis.

The emails also appeared to showed that at the same time as violence raged across the country, his daughter Asma was shopping online for luxury goods, including art, furnishings and jewellery.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad arrive at the Petit Palais, Paris, after attending the Union for the Mediterranean founding summit in July 2008 Credit: GERARD CERLES/AFP

President Assad made his first public statement on the chemical attack last week, when he tried to deny involvement, despite mounting evidence linking government forces to the attack.

A statement on the BSS website says: "The British Syrian Society is saddened and appalled at the violence and loss of life in Syria. Our thoughts and wishes go out to all our friends in Syria and we dearly hope for an end to the troubles that have overcome Syria since March 2011.

“We will continue to do our utmost in strengthening relations between British and Syrian people at this most difficult time and look forward to a return to a more constructive environment."

The BBC yesterday defended its use of Mr Ford as a commentator on events in Syria.

A spokesperson for the broadcaster said: "When Peter Ford has appeared on various BBC outlets this year his particular viewpoint has been signposted in the introduction in terms the audience will understand, for example he has been variously described as a 'long term critic of Western Policy', or part of 'a dwindling group who still think Bashar al-Assad is the solution to Syria'."

Mr Ford was unavailable for comment.

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