Riad al-Turk is a prominent dissident of the Syrian regime, who led a historical faction of the Syrian Communist Party and spent over 23 years in prison. Since the beginning of the revolution in Syria, Turk, now 83, was closely connected to the young men and women who took to the streets and who fought against the regime. He is now the leader of the Damascus Declaration and a key player in Syrian politics. People regard him as the most stubborn fighter against Assad.
Riad al-Turk has often been called ‘The Old Man of the Syrian Opposition’. He was secretary general of the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) since its creation in 1974 and up until 2005. Turk has spent more than two decades in prison as punishment for his political beliefs.
Turk was born in 1930 in the city of Homs. Hewas already politically active when he went to law school and took the bar, joining the Syrian Communist Party early in his life. “I cannot remember when exactly because at that time the party life consisted more of a social movement than organized party life as it exists in the US or Europe,” he tells Joe Pace in an interview in 2005.
Turk was first imprisoned in 1952 after opposing the military regime that took power through a coup. He spent five months in prison, where he was tortured but never tried. In 1958, Turk was incarcerated again by Egyptian leader Nasser for protesting against the merger of Syria and Egypt. He was held for sixteen months, once again being tortured but never put on trial.
Turk was responsible for forming the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) after a split from the main Syrian Communist Party. The party strongly opposed the Syrian regime and focused on pluralist democracy.
“When Assad came to power in 1970,” he tells Joshua Landis of the Syria Comment in 2005, “we opposed him. We didn’t side with the dictator. But the USSR was on Assad’s side because he promised to fulfill Resolution 242. We wanted democracy. We had had enough of military coups.”
The regime tried to repress the party and in 1980 Turk was once again arrested and imprisoned. This imprisonment lasted for almost 18 years, with Turk being placed in solitary confinement in a cell about the length of his body. He was not allowed to exercise and for the majority of the time not given anything with which to occupy his mind. Furthermore, for the first thirteen years Turk was not permitted any communication with or information about his family or friends, including his two daughters. He suffered ill health which he was not treated for and upon his release in 1998 had to be taken to Europe for care.
“During Hafiz’s time, the cells were two meters by two meters with no windows. You were beaten, there was nothing to read, and the food was miserable. You could hardly breathe in the summer. I never saw the sun for 10 years. You can’t imagine what it was like,” he tells Landis.
Following his release, Turk remained relatively politically inactive until 2000, when debates arose after Syrian dictator, Hafiz al-Assad, died and his son succeeded him. He was almost the only one in Syria to openly challenge the draft succession. Turk took a prominent role in the Damascus Spring, which demanded democratic change.
In 2001, he was the first to remind the Syrians on the al-Jazeera TV channel that ‘the dictator was dead’ and that people should be freed from the shackles of the past and look to the future. It wasn’t long before he was once again arrested and put on a trial that was seen by many as unfair. In 2002, he was sentence to three years in prison for ‘attempting to change the constitution by illegal means’, leading to international protests. Turk was released after fifteen months and returned to his political activities.
In 2005, Turk stepped down from his role as secretary in the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) but still remains an influential figure. He also became a prominent member in the Damascus Declaration, an umbrella for the major opposition groups in Syria that drafted astatement of unity from Syrian opposition activists and organizations. He played a key role in changing the political program of the alliance from a nationalistic socialist one into a kind of liberal platform.
The Syrian Revolution
Riad al-Turk has been playing a key role in struggling against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Since the first days of the revolution, he knew that the political opposition is way behind the events. He built good connections with the young men and women who led the demonstrations and later with those who fought against Assad. He was particularly close to the founders of the Local Coordination Committees, a group of activists who organized demonstrations and established the early media center to convey information about the revolution to the media.
When the Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed in Istanbul, Turk led the Damascus Declaration to join the council, and became an influential actor in it, although he himself was not a member. His supporters who joined the SNC were in constant coordination with him, and carried his views to the council. He was not very happy when the National Coalition was formed but as a key factor in the SNC, he continues to play a role in the Coalition.
Turk is known for his stubbornness and to be the last to accept a compromise with Assad. He spent 18 years in solitary, spending the time making images and maps with the dried lentil beans that he kept from his food.
“When I enter prison,”he told Ali Atassi, his biographer, “I stop thinking, analyzing and waiting for the day when I’ll be released. That would only increase my suffering and do nothing for me. Enough! I’m in prison. There’s no room for thinking until you get out. In prison, I’m confined. The most important thing is for me to be steadfast, maintain my political position, not set a bad example, not give up the secrets of my party and not back down from my previous words and statements.”
Other sources: Carnegie Institute, BBC, Ali Atassi Documentary The Cousin, al-Nahar Newspaper