In the nascent dawn of the year, the world witnessed the departure of a figure of remarkable stature. This statement is not an overture of adulation or reproach but rather an endeavour to render an accurate portrayal of Riad al-Turk, a man whose distinction defied convention. His life was a testament to a singular pursuit: the toppling of the Assad regime. The persistence of Assad’s reign, despite al-Turk’s absence, neither undermines the latter’s valiant efforts nor elevates the former’s significance.
The name of Riad al-Turk rose to prominence in the wake of the June 1967 defeat, an event that precipitated profound ruptures in the Syrian and Arab zeitgeist, ushering in significant political transformations. This epoch witnessed a seismic shift within the Arab political arena, with a considerable faction of the Arab nationalist movement gravitating towards Marxist ideology, and conversely, segments of the Marxist cadre leaning towards nationalist sentiments. The Arab Nationalist movement predominantly embraced Marxism, whereas several Marxists, including George Hawi of Lebanon and Riad al-Turk of Syria, transitioned to Arab nationalist stances.
Al-Turk, then a youthful visionary in his thirties, endured recurrent incarcerations and torture, emerging each time with unwavering resolve to persevere in his struggle. The 1967 defeat, while driving numerous intellectuals and politicians towards political nihilism or opportunism, galvanized al-Turk to delve deeper into the discourses of class, nation, global revolution, and the influence of the Big Brother, the Soviet Communist Party. Elected to the Political Bureau of the Syrian Communist Party at its Third Congress in 1969, al-Turk rapidly became a magnet for the party’s younger, more enlightened cadre. He advocated for a critical introspection of the party’s prior phases, critiquing the roles of individuals like Khaled Bakdash and the subservience to Soviet counterparts, and urged the abandonment of “class arrogance” to address the imperative national question.
The challenge Riad al-Turk faced was formidable, for it required confronting the entrenched leader of the party, a feat of extraordinary bravery previously unexhibited. This audacity was not just confined to internal party dynamics; al-Turk also stood in defiance against formidable tyrants like Hafez al-Assad and his progeny.
Our paths, mine and al-Turk’s, never intersected until his release from prison in 1998. Earlier, in 1978, there had been efforts to bridge the Communist Action League and the Communist Party – Politburo. Our comrade Haitham Manna endeavoured to steer the League towards a dialogue with the Communist Party – Political Bureau, advocating for a unified, multi-faceted, modern, and democratic party. However, al-Turk seemed less than keen on the idea of incorporating a group of zealous youths into their left flank. It appeared that the “cousin,” as he was referred to by a notable leader within the party, envisaged transforming the party into a social democratic entity. He was not inclined to accommodate a cluster of emotionally charged and politically insular leftists, to the point of denying us the right to circulate an internal bulletin for expressing our ideas within the party.
In 1979, during my time in Beirut with three comrades, we received, through correspondence with the Damascus Working Committee, a copy of an internal letter from the Central Committee of the Syrian Communist Party – Political Bureau, helmed by the seasoned leader Riad al-Turk. The letter’s internal nature meant it was devoid of political artifice. It referred to the ongoing situation as a “crisis,” acknowledging the emergence of popular movements and uprisings in various forms and intensities, expanding continuously among the “popular masses.” The letter discounted the involvement of the Brotherhood in the Aleppo artillery massacre, instead attributing it to the personal actions of its perpetrator. Describing the incident committed by a Baathist officer as nationally, humanely, and morally reprehensible, the letter linked this crime to a “general and comprehensive crisis” engulfing Syria, primarily due to the lack of democracy.
The term “incident” used in the correspondence to describe the Aleppo artillery massacre lingered in my thoughts, particularly the omission of the Brotherhood or the Fighting Vanguard as the perpetrators. This revelation was startling, evoking a mix of sadness and anger in us. We were disconcerted that the Political Bureau, still resistant to engaging in dialogue with us, seemingly absolved the Muslim Brotherhood of responsibility for the bloodshed, barely condemning the massacre. Instead, they ascribed the act to the regime’s oppression and tyranny.
By the end of 1979, the formation of the National Democratic Rally was announced, uniting five nationalist and leftist political factions: the Arab Democratic Socialist Union Party, the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau), the Arab Revolutionary Workers Party, the Arab Social Democratic Baath Party, and the Arab Socialist Movement (Abdul Ghani Ayyash’s wing). It was intriguing, yet devoid of sarcasm or bias, to note that counterparts of these parties were part of the ruling National Progressive Front in Syria, including the Socialist Union Party (Safwan Qudsi), the Arab Socialists Movement (Abdul Ghani Qannoot), the Syrian Communist Party (Khaled Bakdash), and the Baath Party (Hafez al-Assad). The sole exception was the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, which had no counterpart in the power front.
Our exclusion from the League was a point of contention. Jamal al-Atassi, who showed a willingness to include us, would sometimes meet with me. In these meetings, as I passed our secretly distributed newspaper, the “Al-Raya al-Hamraa” (The Red Banner) to him, he offered me advice with a paternal tone, which I listened to with politeness but often disregarded once I left his clinic. Despite finding Al-Atassi’s calm and confident demeanour, accentuated by his dignified glasses, compelling, my deep-seated aversion to all things related to Abdel Nasser – his politics, thoughts, and organization – led me to metaphorically shrug off his words as soon as I exited his clinic. In the end, it was the “cousin,” Riad al-Turk, who staunchly opposed our inclusion.
So, before Riad al-Turk’s emancipation from the claustrophobic confines of his cell in the Military Investigation Branch, where he languished for nearly eighteen years, our paths had not crossed. Or had they? In fact, fate had placed us in close proximity; I was incarcerated in a cell adjacent to his. My designated space was cell number 37, while he dwelled in cell number 51. My tenure in confinement spanned only a few months, a stark contrast to the cousin’s seventeen-odd-year ordeal. His cell, a mere 190cm by 190cm box, was devoid of windows, fresh air, light, or the warmth of the sun. Our oxygen was mechanically delivered, dependent on a system of pumps and vacuums, susceptible to frequent power outages. It was only after eleven years, when his health had visibly deteriorated, that they provided him with a bed.
The first time I glimpsed him, he appeared as a diminutive, bent figure, laboriously transporting a large plastic basin from the bathroom to his cell. His presence struck me as unlike that of an ordinary prisoner; even the jailers seemed to treat him with a blend of respect, or perhaps it was dread. On another occasion, curiosity got the better of me, and I inquired about him to one of the more sympathetic jailers, who perhaps showed me kindness due to my non-affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Who is your friend in ‘fifty-one’?” I asked.
The jailer’s response was terse yet revealing. “He’s from your folks,” he said, hastily departing as if eager to avoid further entanglement in the matter. This brief interaction only deepened the aura of mystery surrounding al-Turk, a man who, even in the depths of imprisonment, commanded a peculiar respect and intrigue.
Attempting to capture al-Turk’s attention during our shared time in the cells proved futile; he seemed entirely disconnected from anything beyond the confines of his cell. Years later, in a candid conversation with Ali Atassi, the creator of the documentary “The Cousin,” al-Turk revealed the mental fortitude that sustained him through his prolonged incarceration. “I solved the issue simply,” he told Ali. “I became a prisoner of the regime, disengaging from the game of political conflict between the ruler and the ruled. My sole task became to ensure that I gave the regime nothing it could use against my party, neither as information nor as a political stance. Beyond this, I rendered myself a nonentity. Accepting this hellish reality was the price of my unwavering adherence to that principle.”
Our interactions intensified after his release. A visit to his home in Homs revealed his enchanting persona – his simplicity, candour, bravery, humility, and his prioritization of country, people, and party over self. He endeared himself to me by affectionately calling me “cousin,” a term he reserved for those he held dear.
The frequency of our meetings grew after his subsequent arrest under Assad Jr. Once, when I queried about his new imprisonment, he removed the cigarette from his lips, his deep Homs accent tinged with a blend of humour and resignation,
“This is not imprisonment, Cousin. This was a picnic.”
A hearty laugh followed, the smoke from his cigarette swirling upwards, briefly obscuring him from view.
Our bond solidified further with the formation of the Damascus Declaration. Despite my critiques of the declaration’s text, which I felt overly indulged nationalists and Islamists, our conversations often veered towards my vision of a new democratic political framework for Syria, emphasizing truth, justice, secularism, and human rights – a radical departure from the tyrannical regime that had plagued the country for over four decades. Al-Turk would listen, his expression a mix of pity and disagreement, before reminding me, “You still stick to your old political view, cousin!” He would then refocus our dialogue on the singular objective: the overthrow of the Assad family. His perspective, unwavering and singular, stood as a testament to his lifelong commitment to this cause.
As the revolution ignited, the Cousin, seemed to rejuvenate into his youthful vigor. He embarked on a relentless journey, moving from one house to another, traversing neighbourhoods and besieged areas, and rallying young souls to join the cause against the tyrant. Our encounters intensified, growing more frequent during the revolution, up until mid-2012, meeting almost weekly. These rendezvous often took place in the heart of Damascus, in the broad light of day. He would always come with two plastic bags; one held two bottles of water, sourced due to the lack of clean drinking water in the residence where he was hiding in Al-Tal, Damascus countryside, and the other contained documents from the Damascus Declaration, detailing the latest updates and stances on the uprising.
However, my departure from Damascus in June 2012 marked the end of our face-to-face meetings. He transitioned into a life of concealment, moving either into hiding or within the “liberated” areas. Our communication persisted indirectly, through mutual acquaintances and by following his political discourse on revolution and democratic transformation. The grand revolution, however, spiralled into a chasm of sectarian strife, taking down with it the dreams and aspirations of many. Amidst this turmoil, al-Turk stood unwavering, his belief in ultimate victory anchored not in faith or destiny, but in his profound understanding of history and geography.
His confidence in the outcome, however, did not blind him to his misjudgments. In a conversation with Le Monde in October 2018, he acknowledged, “We were mistaken in believing that the fall of the regime was inevitable.” He recognized that this flawed conviction lay at the heart of the revolution’s errors, emphasizing the need for collective and public self-criticism to transition into a new phase of political struggle.
Today, al-Turk’s physical presence is no longer with us, but the resonance of his words lingers. In a poignant reflection to Al-Quds Al-Arabi on September 2, 2018, he expressed his fears of dying and being buried outside Syria, a fate that seemed emblematic of the widespread Syrian diaspora. He noted the tragic irony of Syrians, both within and outside the country, being deprived of their rights, even to a dignified burial. Acknowledging the generational shift, he pondered the relevance of his role in the new era, feeling as though the baton needed to be passed to the younger generation. Despite his reservations and lingering questions about delving into this new chapter, his legacy endures, a testament to his lifelong commitment to his people and their quest for freedom.