Assad’s Father-in-Law: The Man at the Heart of UK-Syrian Relations
Just a few months before his son-in-law launched the bloody crackdown on dissent in Syria that has shocked the international community, Fawaz Akhras was invited to dinner with the Queen.
The Harley Street cardiologist and his wife, Sahar, were asked to attend a state banquet given by the monarch and Prince Philip in honour of the Emir of Qatar in October 2010.
The invitation to the white-tie occasion in the spectacular St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle was a high-water mark in Akhras’s rise in both British and Syrian society. On the British side, he could satisfy himself that he was on a guest list that included the prime minister, David Cameron, the foreign secretary, William Hague, the Prince of Wales and dozens of other British establishment figures. On the Syrian side, he could reflect that his daughter, former banker Asma, had been married to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, for nearly a decade and her reputation was growing as a glamorous and moderating influence on a regime that George Bush included in his “axis of evil”. A PR push would soon bear fruit with Vogue dubbing her a “rose in the desert”.
At 65, Akhras was at the fulcrum of British-Syrian relations, but with the Arab Spring about to unfurl he was to face an extreme test of his principles. The revelation of his apparent role in advising his son-in-law in mitigating negative coverage of his crackdown will stretch his links to the UK establishment to the limit.
By the time of the banquet, he had become a key player in Syrian diplomacy in the UK. In his day job he was a respected cardiologist working at his private clinic and the Cromwell hospital in west London. But through his position as Assad’s father-in-law and by dint of his modest, trustworthy style, he had become a political gatekeeper for Damascus in London and had gathered around him a group of influential supporters. These included the Conservative party donor Wafic Said, Margaret Thatcher’s former chief of staff Lord Powell, and several MPs and business people. But within months, as the bodies piled up in Syria, that support would start draining away, leaving Akhras besieged by criticism and questions about the regime’s judgment that he has struggled to answer.
Akhras was born in Homs, Syria’s third largest city. He emigrated to London in 1973 where he met his wife, Sahar Otri, an official at the Syrian embassy. Their daughter Asma was born in 1975 and they raised her in Acton, where she grew up as Emma, attending a local school and then Queen’s College, a private girls’ school on Harley Street. He completed his postgraduate studies in internal medicine and cardiology at King’s College hospital and lectured at several London medical schools before spending three years in the 1990s chairing the cardiothoracic department at the King Fahed military hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
To some observers, his departure from Syria was typical of a whole generation of educated Syrians who felt that to progress in life they needed to leave the country, which was then led by the repressive Ba’athist president, Hafez al-Assad. Akhras’s daughter’s alliance with Assad’s son Bashar, an eye doctor whom Akhras reportedly met in London, would allow him to become a leading figure among those exiles in rebuilding bridges with their mother country.
Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at Chatham House, said: “When Bashar al-Assad came to power there was optimism among the expats that there was going to be a change from his father, so they started to engage with him and they won some concessions. Bashar allowed them not to do military service so they could go back to Syria again. Akhras became a figurehead of the British Syrians making connections again.”