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    Apologists for Assad working in British universities

    Senior British academics are spreading pro-Assad disinformation and conspiracy theories promoted by Russia, The Times can reveal.
    They are founders of a self-styled Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (SPM) and hold posts at universities including Edinburgh, Sheffield and Leicester.
    Members of the group, which includes four professors, have been spreading the slur, repeated by the Russian ambassador to Britain yesterday, that the White Helmets civilian volunteer force has fabricated video evidence of attacks by President Assad, who is backed by the Kremlin.
    SPM’s advisers include an American who has challenged the US version of 9/11 as a conspiracy theory and an Australian who suggested that the CIA was behind last weekend’s chemical attack in Syria.
    The White Helmets have attracted Russia’s ire for documenting the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April last year, which killed 83 people, a third of them children. Last September a UN unit found that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian forces dropped a bomb dispersing sarin” on Khan Sheikhoun.
    Yesterday an SPM member, Tim Hayward, professor of environmental political theory at the University of Edinburgh, retweeted a claim about an attack on eastern Ghouta that the “White Helmets and terrorist factions staged false flag events and ‘kidnapped, drugged’ children to use as props”. He added: “Witness statements from civilians and officials in Ghouta raise very disturbing questions.”
    Professor Hayward has published a blog article by his colleague Paul McKeigue, a professor of genetic epidemiology and statistical genetics, which claimed that there was almost “zero likelihood” that Assad carried out chemical attacks. He used “probability calculus” to assess the evidence.
    Professor Hayward has used the hashtag #Syriahoax when discussing chemical attacks in the country. The hashtag went viral after being used by alt-right figures in the US, including Mike Cernovich, a main proponent of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which alleged that Hillary Clinton supporters were involved with a child-abuse ring. The hashtag was said to have been promoted by a Russian cyberoperation.
    The professor also linked to a video that appeared to show chemical attack victims that, it was suggested, was staged. A rescuer removed a headscarf from an apparent victim. Professor Hayward wrote: “White Helmets’ mission: ‘To save one headscarf is to save all’ #SyriaHoax”. After being contacted by The Times, he deleted the tweet.
    The American academic Mark Crispin Miller, who was said to have called the US government’s account of the 9/11 attacks a “conspiracy theory”, is on the SPM’s advisory board. Another board member is David Blackall, an Australian academic who tweeted “CIA stages gas attack pretext for Syria escalation” with a link to a blog article.
    Professor Hayward has written for the alternative news website 21st Century Wire, whose associate editor is Vanessa Beeley, daughter of the late British diplomat Sir Harold Beeley. She claims that the White Helmets are al-Qaeda-affiliated and, as “terrorists”, are a “legit target” for Assad’s forces.
    Another member of the group, Piers Robinson, professor of politics, society and political journalism at the University of Sheffield, posted a clip in which Ms Beeley repeated the argument that the group should be a target with the note “interesting interview”.
    Another SPM academic, Tara McCormack, a lecturer in international relations at Leicester University, has tweeted that it is “an established fact that a) the White Helmets are basically Al [Qaeda]”. Dr McCormack has also argued that the death of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic while being prosecuted for war crimes in the Hague “brought an end to the farce” of his trial.
    The first briefing note published by SPM, titled “Doubts about ‘Novichoks’ ”, questioned whether Russia’s secret nerve agent programme ever existed. Britain has blamed Moscow for the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury last month.
    Professor Robinson, a member of SPM, told The Times: “Everything I say and write I can defend as based on good faith research and due consideration of available evidence. Vanessa Beeley produces information that is worthy of consideration and certainly her work on the White Helmets, along with work produced by others, raises extremely important questions for academics to research [and] the public to know about.”
    The University of Sheffield declined to comment, saying that it needed more time to consider the matters raised.
    Professor Hayward said, regarding his use of #Syriahoax: “I understood a hashtag to indicate a topic rather than a creed. I do not accept that I am spreading any ‘disinformation’. ”
    The University of Edinburgh said: “We recognise and uphold the fundamental importance of freedom of expression, and seek to foster a culture that enables it to take place within a framework of mutual respect.”
    Adam Larson, an independent researcher with SPM, last night denied that it would promote disinformation. Such content would be “strategically designed to mislead” and wrong, he said.”

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