Riad al-Turk Interview: 11 March 2005
I interviewed Riad al-Turk in Homs 11 March 2005, the day after he protested with the Syrian opposition in central Damascus. Hassan al-Fattah and Katherine Zoeph of the New York Times and Salim Abraham of A.P. and I drove up to Homs to speak to him at his family house. Hassan organized the trip and he and Katherine were kind enough to invite me along. They wanted to find out how organized and strong the opposition is.
I was happy to get the chance to meet al-Turk, who is the Amin al-`Amm (Secretary General) of the Syrian Communist Party - Political Office. He has been a fixture in the enlightened opposition for 55 years and is respected for his fearlessness and humanity. Although he has spent over 20 years in prison, Riad is still hail and sharp at 75. His first stint in jail was under Adib Shishakli in 1954. He spent another 15 months in jail under Nasser in 1960, then under Assad from 1980 to 1998, and finally under Bashar for another year and three months. He has recently undergone heart surgery, but he still smokes on occasion and is surrounded by a loving wife, beautiful daughters and grandchildren. He greeted us in his comfortable apartment in the center of Homs.
When asked if the opposition in Syria is weak:
He was quite frank about admitting to the weakness of the opposition, but insisted that most people are against the government. "The terrorism of the Asad regime over the last three decades," he said, "has turned the country into a prison of the mute."
Since the late 1990s, the opposition has been growing. The government hasn’t been able to govern well. The weakness goes back to the government terrorism of the 1980s.
“Yes, the opposition is in a terrible state,” he confessed, “but the future is on the side of the opposition.”
“The flames are under the cinders. Can I tell you when the earthquake will hit? No. Look at Lebanon. Could anyone tell when that would break out? Our resistance and opposition began well before that in Lebanon. You never know. This mute society wants to get rid of this government. Look at what happened to Saddam Hussein. The army didn’t fight and the people wanted a divorce.”
When asked what proof there was that the people wanted a divorce in Syria, he said:
You will find in every city and town sadness and horror at what happened in the past. Go into the houses of the people and close the doors and ask them. They will laugh at the slogans of the regime.
Look at our incomes. The average household earns seven or eight thousand pounds ($140-$160) a month. These are the complaints of the people. The system doesn’t offer them the ability to realize their dreams and capabilities. Everyone hurt by the system is considered part of the opposition.
The Lebanese opposition is not over. The Hizbullah demonstration was made to intimidate the Lebanese. If Nasrallah was aware and smart, he would change his political direction. Hizbullah would know that the role of the Syrians has ended in spirit and not just in terms of the troops. Who is Nasrallah trying to show his muscle to? Jumblatt, Gemayel, the followers of Hariri? If so, it is because he wants civil war.
The Sunnis and Druze came out of the civil war in Lebanon the losers – that is why they accepted the Ta`if Accords. Syria is following the politics of a child. Taif no longer has any meaning. It is broken. Syria broke it when it didn’t pull out in 1992. Syria wanted to make Lebanon into a Syrian province.
The question of Lebanon is the essence of the regional problem and the Syrian internal problem. Syria made every side the loser so it could rule in Lebanon. The government has done the same here. The government lives on the divisions of the people. It must divide the people in order to stay in power.
We asked about the Damascus Spring – the brief opening that followed Bashar’s coming to power in 2000.
He denied there had been a spring. “It was always winter,” he joked. “And that was before the coming of the American winter.”
I asked about the protest organized by the opposition last Thursday, the day after the large pro-government protest, which brought several hundred thousand people onto the streets of Damascus.
He explained that the security did not allow the protesters to gather in one place in front of the Hijaz Rail Road Station, as they had planned. “That is why most observers believed there were only one or two hundred protesters,” he explained. “Instead they were divided in two groups behind the station and at Marje square. Also we were not very organized. Many people came late and dribbled in at different times.” He insisted that 1,000 people turned up over all. “The organs of the state were ordered to suppress the peaceful demonstration. They hit several of its leaders and tried to force one to announce into his microphone,"With my soul and blood, I sacrifice for you, Oh Asad."
He did not speak of "incredible brutality." But he did say that the regime has learned nothing and will collapse on its own from internal contradictions and trying to suppress the opposition rather than taking their demands seriously, lifting emergency rule, defending human rights, and opening the way to democracy.
He compared the Syrian regime to Saddam Hussein's, which learned nothing after the 1991 War. "Rather than fix its mistakes, it persisted in its bad ways and ultimately weakened the country such that the US invaded and conquered it without a real struggle. The Iraqi people and army, as we saw, did not stand by the regime," he explained. "This is why I blame Saddam, first and foremost for the American invasion. It is his duty to protect the nation." He warns that the same could happen in Syria, but does not believe that the US government really wants regime change in Damascus. "The question [of what America wants] is foggy," he said.
I asked him if he sides with George Bush and if he agrees with the American president that the Middle East is ready for democracy.
“Hey Brother,” he responded, “We were there before him. In 1979, we formed the tajummm`a al-dimuqrati or Democratic Association. Our main slogan was al-taghayyur al-demuqrati al-jazri or “radical democratic change.” But we were a sick organ because of the terrorism. The terrorism of the state killed any political instinct in the people, and we had no support from the West.
When Asad came to power in 1970, we opposed him. We didn’t side with the dictator. But the USSR was on Asad’s side because he promised to fulfill 242 (the UN resolution demanding “land for peace” as a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict). Salah Jadid did not want 242. He wanted revolution. Asad’s coup came with international support.
We wanted democracy. We had had enough of military coups. We recreated our politics. We didn’t want the demagoguery – “unity, Arabism, and Baathism.” We face it with the demand for democracy. Asad played the conflict between the USSR and America and the Baath party of Asad was the winner.
We considered Asad and not the Muslim Brothers the #1 terrorist organization in the country. Israel and the US have weakened the opposition to a terrible point. We need to get rid of dictatorship.
The US protest against Hama was very small and completely inadequate. Now, Bush protests in a very loud voice.
I recognize that countries change their politics. At that time, the US was allied with the state and happy with the government. If the US administration were really democratic it would have condemned the government for Hama.
But if Bush attacks, I will hold Bashar the number one person responsible. All the same, democracy must come from the inside, not from traitors working with the outside, like Chalabi. Democracy cannot be brought on the back of a tank. The stick is used by those who want to provoke and not by those who wish good things for their people.”
“Yes I believe the Middle East is ready to go down the road toward democracy. We are ready to reject dictatorship. We agree with the Americans on this.”
“Nowhere in the Middle East has the acceptance of democracy been greater than in Syrian and Lebanon. The enlightened classes from the beginning of the last century studied in Europe and brought back ideas of democracy. We have been at this for a long time now.
I mentioned the recent free elections in the Engineers’ Syndicate, which resulted in only Sunni candidates being elected to leadership positions, despite a high percentage of Christians in the profession. Sunnis wouldn’t vote for Christians. I asked if Syria needed a confessional system as in Lebanon in order to protect minorities. (Riad al-Turk is a Kurd, so I was interested in his take on minority rights in a country where religious and ethnic identity is so paramount.
Confessionalism has gotten worse under this system. Yes, there is a reaction among Sunnis against Alawites. When the Alawites came to power they took many of the good jobs in the state and privileged their coreligionists.
In order to weaken the religious factor, we have to build a stronger sense of national identity, reinforce national instruction, and uphold the constitution.
A state of law must be our goal. Law treats everyone the same way – Sunnis and Alawis, the rich and the poor. Only the law can solve this problem.
If the regime fell, is there any power or organization that could rule? Is there an alternative?
The crisis is one of slaves and masters just as in ancient Rome. The problem was that when the slaves took over, they reproduced the same system and just became masters themselves. You can’t see the opposition here as you would in the West. No one is getting trained in the opposition while one party is in power. This regime of slaves can’t allow anything to grow.
Also, many of the opposition parties are selfish. The leaders look after their own interests and those of their party to the exclusion of the national interest or the opposition goals in general. This has come about for several reasons: one is because of the oppression of the government, the second because of the parties’ own corruption, (most of the opposition parties entered into the Progressive Front, becoming “loyal opposition” groups with seats in parliament and no followers.) and the third is because of the opposition’s inability to grow and change with the times. The country has changed over the years and their slogans are the same.
All the same, the government will collapse of its own contradictions and the future is on the side of the opposition. The state has no power to reform and open up to the people. Bashar has not learned the lesson of Iraq. He is like Saddam who had 11 years from 1991 to 2002 to change, but couldn’t. The US would not have entered Iraq if Saddam had been capable of change.
Why did the Byzantine and Persian empires collapse in front of the Arab invasions in the seventh century? Because they were weak and incapable of reform.
Before getting up to go, I had to ask Riad about his famous remark on being let out of jail this last time under Bashar. In his first interview after his release, he had said that the jails under Bashar were like a “five star hotel.” So I asked him, “Were they really five stars?”
He laughed and so did his daughters and son-in-law, who were sitting at the edge of the room. “Yes, it is true,” he said. The people who went to jail this last time had no clue how bad things were under Hafiz. The rooms were big with windows on both sides. We had mattresses and regular food.
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 breath in the summer. I never saw the sun for 10 years. You can’t imagine what it was like.
Yes, it is five stars now. I got into a lot of trouble for that remark. All the opposition members wanted me to lie and say that it was hell, but it is important to tell the truth. I upset two organizations with that remark – the opposition and the jailers of Hafiz’s time.
So does that mean that Bashar is more human than his father?
No. No. Things are not better because Bashar is more human or wants to reform. It is because the regime is weak.
After thanking his family for tea and coffee and for being so kind to us, we started down the stairs. Riad insisted on showing us out to the street and making sure that we headed back in the right direction. I wanted to ask a few more questions that have always troubled me. How many prisoners are there left in Syria’s jails?
There are 300 to 500 hundred. Most are Muslim Brothers.
What about the Kurds?
Yes, there are Kurds too, but most have been let out.
Is that all?
Those are the ones that we can visit. Maybe there are 15,000 others unaccounted for.
Do you think most of those are dead?
Maybe. We don’t know.
How many were killed at Hama?
The Muslim Brothers said 48,000. But if you subtract the wounded, perhaps 15,000 to 20,000.
We thanked Riad again and set out on our return trip to Damascus. We didn’t arrive until 2:00 in the morning as our old Lada taxi overheated six or seven times and our two hour trip turned into a six hour odyssey. The driver was greatly embarrassed, but none of us seemed to mind, as we told stories and laughed most of the way back.
Several people have asked how badly the opposition protesters were intimidated:
Here are three articles from an-Nahar in Arabic sent to me by Tony at Across The Bay who wrote:
by the way, you didn't post any of this. You should. It involves Riyadh al-Turk and the opposition demos in Syria that were crushed by the youths and the security forces with incredible brutality beating up women and children.
(One - Two - and Three)
(Tony has complained bitterly for the last several days that I have hidden news about the opposition - supposedly because I have gone over to the dark side. Not so Tony, yee of little faith. Have patience man. I beat you to the punch and headed up to Homs to do some hard reporting – just needed time to write up the interview. I still have a life to attend to.)
The Reform Party of Syria - Farid Ghadry's group in the US, writes:
Peaceful Demonstration in Syria is Met with Beatings
Washington DC, March 10, 2005/RPS/ -- The Arab Human Rights Committee in Syria, led by Dr. Ammar Qurabi, called for Syrians to peacefully march to the Ministry of Justice today to object the lack of freedom and expression and to free prisoners of conscience in Syria.
Upon arrival to the Ministry of Justice, about 100 marchers were met by intelligence and security personnel who used sticks and batons to beat the marchers back and to disperse them. Some people sustained injuries.