Riad al-Turk Interviewed by Joe Pace on Mehlis, the Opposition, Ghadry
Interview and translation by Joe Pace
8 September 2005
Riad al-Turk has often been called Syria’s Mandela because he is the grandfather of the Syrian left. For many years al-Turk was 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. Also see my 11 March 2005 interview with Riad al-Turk here.
Joe Pace: Could you give us information about yourself; how did you become opposition?
Riad al-Turk: You haven’t heard the saying that when anyone discusses himself, he is a liar? I’m from Homs, born in 1930. I went to law school and joined the lawyers union. I am now a member of the lawyers union in Homs. I joined the Communist party early in my life—I cannot remember when exactly because at that time the party life consisted more of a social movement than organized party life like there exists in the US or Europe. In the student movement, there were four tiers: a conservative trend dominated by the bourgeoisie, a religious movement dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, a nationalist trend even though Nasser had not yet come into power led by the Ba’thists, and a Marxist trend led by the Communist party. I was part of the Communist party.
I, like the rest of the members, was a member of all the relevant forums. In 1969, the party split into two: the traditionalists and the one’s who wanted to re-evaluate their stance towards the Soviets. I was from the later and after the party conference, I was elected first secretary, a position that I held until April of last year when Abdullah Hoshi took over.
At that time, we changed the name of our party from the Communist Party to the People’s Democratic Party.
What motivated you to change the name of the party?
There are lots of reasons. First, we had been criticizing the Soviet Union for a long time and the relationship between the Soviet Communist party and our communist party had been one of subordination. They would demand information or order us to take a certain stance or undertake a certain task. Our opinion was that the Soviet Union should be seeking advice and council from us since we are from this country and understand it better than the Soviets. There are non-Arab elements in this country, like the Kurds, the occupants of southern Sudan, and the Berbers. There are a multitude of sects and religions, which resemble a mosaic. It is only logical that only the principle of citizenship would unite them. How else are you supposed to unite the Arab world democratically without employing power politics as Egypt did when it used to force its will on Syria or as Syria did to Lebanon? It was typical of the Communist parties that were nurtured by the Soviet outlook to make light of the objective conditions in the Arab world and in Syria especially.
From another perspective, we thought that the Soviet Union was responsible for the stagnation of Marxist thought. It was not subject to renewal, by which I mean a re-interpretation in light of the newest scientific developments. The Soviets froze Marxist ideas to serve their interests. Perhaps Marxism was implemented to serve revolutionary aims in the context of the World Wars, but Marxism has to be open to renewal and rendered compatible with democracy. The Soviet Union did not understand this and they tried to implement their version of Marxism and wield the communist parties in the rest of the world, which produced a widespread backlash wherein people disassociated from the Soviet Union. We were latecomers in this phenomenon because we didn’t listen to the civilized world.
The third reason is that this period in Syrian history must be one in which we combat despotism. This struggle should not be undertaken with the revolutionary slogans of the leftists and communists, but rather through an assembly of all elements of this society that have been hurt by despotism and putting them in a single melting pot for the sake of democratic change. Only a democratic state suits us.
Finally, when our party was established in 1924, its name was the People’s Party of Syria. We have returned to the parties founding name, but we have added the word “democratic.”
Democracy is a vague concept. Do you have a specific program for democratizing the state? [Riad presents me with a large book on the party’s positions and tells me to read it.]
We tried to do two things. At a minimum, we will continue fighting this regime until it democratizes. We also published a program for Syria in accordance with how we envision it: a democratic state. We believe that Syria is passing through a transitional state from despotism to a greater freedoms and a democratic, watani regime. This is the slogan that we are proposing for people. This regime, by virtue of its basic structure, rules by dictatorial decree. It used to be Hafiz al-Assad, but now he has bequeathed the inheritance to his son. Hafiz was psychologically ill: he thought he was the king of the country and so just as one would bequeath a house, he bequeathed the country to his sons. During Hafez’s reign, this country’s institutional spinal cord was established: the most basic element was military power consisting of the army and the secret police. After that is the Ba’th party which has an ideological function; its political function rests on utopian notions and it has no role in governing other than marketing and justifying the decisions and statements made by the presidency and the Republican Palace.
Beside the Ba’th party—or more appropriately put, under it—you have a collection of parties under the heading of the National Progressive Front. Around those two groupings, you have formal popular organizations and associations like workers unions, peasant associations, student alliances, etc.
With regard to the structure of the state, it’s completely presidential in the sense that there is a referendum for the presidency, not an election. The national leadership in the legislative assembly nominates the candidate, and Hafez al-Assad from 1970 until his death was the only candidate. The politicians from the various parties who cooperate with the regime were manufactured by the secret police. The job of the secret police is to surveil society—they don’t even trust their own party.
This is the structure of authoritarianism, and the average citizen has two choices if he wants to participate in politics. Either he does so in the security regime’s camp, or he becomes opposition. If he chooses the opposition, the only thing he can expect is prison, or murder, or exile—or in the recent period he can keep his mouth shut and continue to live, but like an animal. Hafiz al-Assad through the 70s was able to secure Soviet support and even managed to win over the Americans. So through most of his reign, he ruled with the public aware of the fact that America and the Soviet Union and even the Arab states were behind him. He served their interests on the condition that they refrained from interfering in internal Syrian affairs.
Hariri was assassinated, but he was a mere individual. In 1982, the Syrian regime killed some 30,000 people and the Americans barely registered a protest. Now one man gets killed and the world is up in arms. Of course, I understand that this regime has become weak and incapable of serving the US, and also that the US is looking to renovate its policy; Condoleezza Rice said very clearly that the US made mistakes, that it supported despots for the sake of stability, and that it neglected democracy and human rights. The result of that support for despotism is that it has spread throughout society and produced these expiatory (tikfiri) terrorist groups.
All of the regimes in the Middle East, with the exception of Lebanon, are dictatorial. The details might differ—power might be centralized in a king, the president, a certain tribe—but they follow the same basic template: the head of state is the uncontested ruler and his followers must execute his will. There is thus a real need for our society to change, for the state of the Arabs to change, and a need for the Americans to alter their policy in the aftermath of 9-11.
We are cognizant of these factors as we search for a solution. On this one point alone, we agree with the Americans: we are against this regime. But is our program for change the same as that of the US? I don’t think so. The regime accuses the opposition of being American agents, even though for the longest time, America wasn’t even inquiring about the state of the opposition. I remember that while I was imprisoned, Cyrus Vance came after the protests and demonstrations for me. He met with Hafez al-Assad and demanded my release. Hafez said that “this man is your biggest enemy. Do you want me to open his file for you?” Cyrus Vance and the US administration didn’t say a word.
Syrian society is ironed by this regime. The totalitarian mindset does not let you create your own opinion. These authorities for the most part were farmers who escaped poverty. They were persecuted by the Ottomans and Sunnis who hated the Alawites. When they came to power, it was presumed that they would eliminate their poverty and the poverty of the people. But all they did was eliminate their own poverty. So the governing mindset is one that concerns itself with theft and accumulating money through any means regardless of their legitimacy. So our economy has crumbled and people are impoverished and the family requires two or three people working just to provide the most basic amenities.
Therefore, economically and socially our society is deeply troubled. This economic languishing has produced many terrible social phenomena: thievery, gangs, prostitution. Politically, there is no way for anyone expept the most intrepid to challenge the regime, which has profoundly weakened the opposition. The only people who participate are those who are willing to take on any challenge irrespective of the price, but you don’t get the masses like you once could. There is no popular mass; they are fearful of the security branches, fearful of terrorists, fearful, fearful, fearful.
Do you think that the regime is preparing the political landscape for a new party law by creating or permitting the creation of groups who claim to be oppositional but are actually taking their cues from the secret police? Rihab al-Bitar’s party comes to mind since it has been tolerated in the midst of this crackdown.
This is evidence of the regime’s weakness, this game they are playing with the party law. But it’s a game that has been played for the past five years. They’re not going to promulgate a real election law; in the tenth B’ath conference, they issued recommendations for a party law that excluded parties based on religion or nationalisms, but it’s a bunch of lies. These promises from the regime are evidence that it is in a state of decline and weakness. When these sorts of regimes weaken but don’t want to reform, they multiply their promises and slacken in the execution thereof, or if they can, they erase them all together.
As for Rihab, I don’t have an opinion. But I can say that the names that are emerging—this one establishes a party, that one an organization, this one an association, that one a research center—are a result of the political chaos that reigns in the this country. And this chaos most especially afflicts the opposition because the remaining parties that survived the terror of the 1970s—and even the present day—emerged weak and their platforms do not resonate with the younger generations.
The National Democratic Assembly (At-tajama’ al-watani ad-democrati) especially has been debilitated. In the late 1970s, it was working peacefully for democratic change while the Muslim Brotherhood waged its violent campaign against the regime. But now, it is weak and incapable of attracting the youth. This is why the opposition is in such a weak state.
But I think that after the problems in Lebanon, the regime will purge its ranks and rid itself of the old and hesitant and so the authorities now are totally exposed to the Assad family.
Why has the National Democratic Assembly in particular seen its influence wane?
The primary reason is that the nationalist and leftists parties have been unwilling to reexamine their political stances. We split with the communists because they are working with the regime. We were the ones who organized a conference and offered solutions to a wide range of problems facing Syria. We call for reconciliation between the political trends, but not reconciliation with the regime—we are calling for change. As for any reformists inside the regime or Ba’thists who agree with the opposition’s aims of a national democracy, we aren’t against them.
What’s the basis for your claim that the Assembly is weak? One can easily criticize intellectual stagnancy, but on a practical, organizational level, what does that entail: decreased membership, less organized activities, etc?
Certainly, its support base has contracted. We don’t have a platform suitable to the present conditions this society is facing. It is estranged from this society’s politics. University students, the youth, those from the country side—none of them are finding anything within this assembly that suits them. Even its position towards America is problematic; they dogmatically cling to idea that America is our enemy, period. All of these factors are impeding the Assembly’s ability to attract new members.
The opposition today is intellectually backwards and incapable of communicating with the populace. If you examined the membership of the opposition parties you’d discover that the younger members are in their mid-40s—they are not attracting the youth. What is the new generation? What are its concerns? If I can’t speak to their concerns, how am I supposed to bring them into my party? These parties are totally detached from the younger generations. The age group between 10 and 25 represents more than 60% of society, so if you want to address the needs of society, you have to address the needs of the youth—political, social, and economic.
The average citizen is unable to live a life of dignity. It’s truly a tragedy—a tragedy because the authority imposes itself, and a tragedy because the opposition is incapable of doing anything about it. Anyone who tells you that the opposition is effective or doing a good job is lying to you.
A conflict has ensued between the Americans and the French on one hand and the Syrian regime on the other, and Syrian society and the democratic opposition are conspicuously absent. We want a third option: we reject the despotic authorities, nor do we expect that the Americans come and govern us. But objectively speaking, when the internal situation weakens, the foreign powers intervene, which is why I always say that the Americans are coming. Let them topple this regime!
An American once asked me whether or not I was happy with the collapse of Saddam’s regime. Of course, we were against the occupation and understand that America had ulterior motives for the occupation. Anyways, I told him I was very pleased. He asked, “then why can’t you admit that we are doing something good in Iraq?” I replied, “if you chart Iraqi society on a graph, Saddam Hussein dragged his society below zero. You have raised it to zero, but its still zero. What’s needed is progress, the establishment of a functioning state on the ruins of that brutal regime. This can only be realized if the Americans pull out.” American policy was always against us and this was the case in Africa and South America as well. It was America that brought the militias and the despots.
Do you want to see more American or foreign pressure on the regime to reform and respect human rights, and if so, what sort of pressure?
I am not asking America to intervene in any of those issues. I want this regime to be weakened by the UN Security Council, which should admonish the regime: if you don’t change, there are a hundred means at our disposal—political, diplomatic, economic boycotts, to name a few. The second means would be to push American civil society groups to form relationships with the Syrian opposition. It is incumbent on the US to support and encourage the opposition, not enter Syria with its troops.
We want to see a variety of assistance: political supports, cultural support, shelter, etc. For example, I am not able to travel to Lebanon; the Lebanese government wouldn’t dare let me in. If the Syrian opposition began using Lebanon as a base, wouldn’t it be better than letting the secret police spy on us and pick us off one by one? We need to diversify and expand our base. We communists have been working like that all our lives: Lebanon was our base because the Syrian communists and the Lebanese communists were one party. They could do anything to us—we were like sly devils. My point is that we need a space in which society can mobilize. We want moral support but it has to be through legitimate means like the UN.
What do you think of Farid al-Ghadry?
Who is this Farid al-Ghadry?! There is a difference between someone seeking to better his society and ensure that it respects human rights, and one who wants to bring in his agents. This type of strategy doesn’t work. The Americans are not incapable of finding a way to forge a principled relationship with the opposition and its not too late.
Farid al-Ghadry is like something that descended from the sky; we don’t know anything about his roots, about his history, about his background. So he founds a party and he wants to enter the country—this is a guy who wants to enter Syria on an American tank, just like Chalabi and Allawi did in Iraq. Look, those people are still Syrian citizens even if they live in America. They have the right to criticize and mobilize. But suddenly, out of nowhere, they want change?
Farid wrote recently that the opposition would be powerful enough to replace the Syrian regime in six months. Do you share his optimism?
That is nonsense. We have been working for more than 30 years and we are still being harassed and imprisoned. Work in Syria is still extremely complicated and there is no mobilized, politicized street. But we must work to become a third force; this is the difficult task ahead of us. There is a conflict being waged between the Americans and Syria, which is why I say that the Americans are coming regardless of whether or not we welcome them.
This regime is done for. This regime is in its last throes and you should not waste your time feeling sorry for it.
Does Farid have any supporters inside Syria?
It’s something if someone’s even heard of him; you’re average citizen has no clue who he is. He doesn’t have anyone and if he wants to acquire supporters, he should enter Syria secretly and work with us. I’m speaking with total honesty as someone opposed to this regime: we would welcome any Syrian who does that. But look at the family history: the father was a Saudi agent, then he went to America and became an American agent, now he has returned as a Syrian agent. He is probably working with the CIA and he’s definitely working with the state department.
Farid al-Ghadry contacted me, and I refused to work with him. He’s not someone who can be relied upon…We reject military intervention because the Iraq model is not something that can cultivate a democratic environment. The international community needs to support and encourage the opposition that has a real sense of what democracy requires, that understands the concerns of the people, not the old and tired Nassirists or Marxists.
Everyone talks about democracy, the repeal of the emergency law, the release of political prisoners, etc—but none of these issues are moving people to the streets. I brought a friend of mine to the protest in front of the High Security Court in June, and she asked me “what exactly is the emergency law?” Then she asked me “how do I know that the people you’re protesting for aren’t agents of America or Israel?”—unfortunately this is not an uncommon sentiment among the people. So what are the issues that concern people? What are the issues that will mobilize them?
The issues that concern people are the issues that affect their daily lives. The average salary, for example, is less than 6,000 lire (about $115) per month. It’s not enough; they need to pay rent and put food on the table and most families have at least five people. At best, it can cover only the most modest expenses like food. With that salary, at least three people in the family have to work, but how often do you find a family with three people who can work? As a result, the structure of the family is coming apart at the seams. The father used to be the bread-winner. Now he’s pushing his wife and daughters to work, he’s not letting his sons go to school because they have to take wages with their father. This is a tragedy for the children.
The average citizen may work two or three jobs and there is no time for anything else. How is he supposed to get involved in politics? It’s not possible because the mafia-like rulers have continuously impoverished the people of this country. Syria used to be marked by its middle class, bourgeoisie, and its productive capacity. This regime has ruined everything; the rate of poverty is more than 60%. Some 66% are at the poverty line.
I’ll give you the example of education. People are failing in primary schools. Under this regime, illiteracy has increased despite the proliferation of schools. People graduate from college and don’t find any work. If I am a young man and I graduate, what am I supposed to do? I can’t work, I have to live with my family, which means I can’t marry. The only option is to emigrate. No less than 50% of Syrians are living off of the remittances of emigrants. The youth is facing a crisis.
There is an educational crisis. You could find upwards of 350 people in a medical school classroom. If they want to attend an anatomy course, how can they possibly learn anything? They would be lucky to lay their eyes on a piece of bone or muscle and catch part of an explanation. It’s the same thing in geology and physics. They leave school with useless information. I spoke to someone who graduated with a degree in geology with high honors—if you gave him a rock, he wouldn’t be able to identify it. But if you gave him the name of a rock, he could list you off its characteristics, its composition, etc. Its no wonder that not a single dam built during Hafez’s time period is still working. You might have heard of the Zedzun damn which broke with catastrophic consequences.
You asked about the protest in front of the High National Security Court. If we expressed our interest in the state of the people and explained to them that people are being arrested because of their opposition to the regime, the level of thought and political awareness will rise and people will realize the value of these protests.
Is the current opposition capable of—
It’s not capable of anything! I’m against it! It has no future! It is unwilling to reexamine its platform. Its mind is sick just like the regime! Their Nasserist ideology is backwards and dangerous. Their end will come as they align themselves with the regime under the banner of opposing the US. I think a division and eventually a decisive battle is going to erupt within the opposition on this point.
It’s not just the nationalists that are weak and sick. It’s the leftists: the communists, the Marxists, the Ba’thists.
What do you think of the liberals?
I think the liberals are more mature, but they aren’t really present. They don’t have a real party. If you studied the history of Syria, you know that it was best when ruled by liberals. But there is a certain environment in which liberal parties will come into being.
I’m not talking about the liberal parties that you might be reading about on the internet and elsewhere. Those are being formed by agents of the regime. If I wanted to bring you the model liberal, I would talk about Raid Seif. But the rest are agents of the regime.
The most appropriate adjective for the state of the opposition, society, and the regime is chaos—intellectual chaos. Indecisiveness, impotence, hopelessness—these are the most prominent adjectives of the opposition. The bulk of the blame lies with the National Democratic Assembly which was supposed to be opposition and did its job in the end of the 1970s, but now is totally incapable. Where did all of this energy go? Now a band of three people get together and throw together a party. The formation of parties is no small issue: it requires though, organization, an articulation of the social state of things. These people aren’t articulating anything and that is why this impotency has overtaken them.
Do you intend on splitting off from the National Democratic Assembly?
No. I personally do not cooperate with them, though my party does. We will continue working with them until we find a better alternative. We will continue to pressure them, though, and check the weakness of their stance in front of the regime. We will expose the formation of secret ties between them and the regime.
Which party is larger, yours or the Communist Union Party?
The latter, if you measure size by the number of members. If you measure it in terms of intellectual development, diversity, willingness to struggle, then we are the largest. The rest of them are collecting garbage.
I’ll give you an example to demonstrate just how ridiculous they are. We expelled someone because we discovered he was an agent of the security apparatus. He spied on us, we reported it to the leadership of the Communist Party, so he was expelled. Just recently, we heard from the Communist Union Party that the same man was offered membership in the Tartus branch. He’s an agent! How can you accept him without even asking any questions? I have to avoid the regime’s agents because infiltration into the party poses a huge danger. It would reveal all of our organizational activities. We are fighting a battle with this regime. We are not living in a democratic environment where we can open the door to anyone who wants to be a member.
Could you give me a sense of how many members each of your parties has?
We don’t announce how many members we have. That’s kept secret. Even in the last conference, the releases we issued wouldn’t name more than one person who participated on a committee and that’s usually because he’s known anyways. We have plenty of experience with secret work. But as soon as a democratic atmosphere develops, we won’t have to do anything secretly; we will be able to welcome anyone.
I get the sense that secret activities, at least within the secular opposition, is decreasing. Would you say that’s correct? One of the reasons I ask is because Farid al-Ghadry said recently on his website that secret organizations were proliferating.
No. The parties that are forming are doing so publicly. Secret activities have to decline. We are in a period of organization which is half secret, half open.
You announced on al-Mustaqila that you want to form an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in exile. Have you been harassed or summoned to the security branches on account of this announcement?
No. I think they haven’t done anything because they think that the alliance between us and the Muslim Brotherhood won’t result in anything tangible any time soon because the parties in the Democratic National Assembly are afraid.
Do you have a sense as to how strong the Muslim Brotherhood’s following is inside Syria?
The Muslim Brotherhood has a weak following here. There is a difference between religious people who happen to oppose the regime and those who sympathize with the political organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood.
There are religious people who support our party. When I spoke to Sheikh Bayanuni, I told him “you don’t represent the Sunnis. The Sunnis are diverse; they are not a single body.” That’s something that the West still doesn’t understand. And not everyone who is devout, who prayers and fasts, is automatically an enemy of the West. That type of thinking is a huge mistake.
Why did you choose to align yourself with the Muslim Brotherhood? What is the long-term strategy here?
They have been harmed by despotism and so have we. Why shouldn’t we meet to bring an end to despotism? That’s our right. Second, I recognize that a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer is a Syrian citizen who has the right to participate in politics and belong to the party of his choice. The Muslim Brotherhood has the right to exist: this is the basis of democracy.
We cannot topple this regime as a people without American intervention unless we form a broad coalition. This coalition must include religious movements that are willing to embrace democracy.
So do you believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to democracy?
They announce that they are. Look, someone could say that I am a former communist and the Soviet Union is undemocratic and so I shouldn’t be trusted. If we all thought like that, we would scatter to the winds. Therefore we have to converge on the lowest common denominator, which consists of two things: overthrowing this despotic regime and accepting one another in the sense that we are political parties who derive our legitimacy from the people. If the people choose one of us in the context of fair elections, that party will rule. But there has to be a rotation of power, say, every four years as happens in America.
We are supposed to make specific promises to the people. The despotic mindset doesn’t make promises. It aims to exclude and eliminate; it says it wants to change society. I don’t want to change society—that’s a mistaken way to look at it. Society will change for the better or the worse based on a multitude of factors. This is the basis for forming our alliance: we have spent too much time negating one another because we want to change all of society to fit our ideal image. We have to be citizens before we are partisans.
You expressed a willingness to ally with them, but are they willing to cooperate and coordinate with your party?
I think so. We have our differences, but they regard the future. We both agree what needs to happen now. They want an Islamic government in the future and I don’t. We live in a country of Muslims and Christians and so on and so forth and the Muslim Brotherhood only represents one segment of the Sunnis who are themselves only one sect. The Sunnis also consist of Communists and secularists and liberals, etc.
Do you think that the Muslim Brotherhood still regards non-Muslims as second-class citizens?
No, the idea of ahal ath-thimma is old and outdated. I heard Sheikh Bayanuni say that he would accept even a woman or Christian as the president of Syria.
The relationship between the opposition’s parties has a bad history. We were at one point battling the Muslim Brotherhood because ideology triumphed over politics. I am an atheist, so if I want to relate to the Muslim Brotherhood on the level of ideology, I must reject them. And if the Muslim Brotherhood wants to relate to me on the level of ideology, they must consider me an apostate. But the times have changed, and we must reprioritize politics over ideology.
We have had a painful history, but now we have to rebuild the parties on the basis of citizenship. We must recognize that the other is a citizen deserving of equal rights and political participation.
The Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed power within the government in the 1950s and there wasn’t any violence. Certainly, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood spawned parties for generations that committed acts of terrorism, but the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria is not like that.
Why do the Syrian parties split with such frequency? There are 13 Kurdish parties, almost a dozen communist parties, and in the period of five weeks, three new liberal parties were formed!
I already addressed this question. We are in a transitional state that is marked by intellectual chaos, an inability to exact change, hopelessness from the regime. There is no one who is able to unite people and lead the struggle. Sure, there are a lot of parties, but do any of these parties have a presence among the people? These are parties in name only.
You have to ask, why are these parties that exist in name only proliferating? It’s opportunism. In the context of this chaos, there will be a decisive battle fought between the regime and its supporters and an opposition that is capable of producing a platform for change. If the rest of the parties are incapable of producing such a platform, the outside powers will play a role. Many of these people will offer themselves up as agents of the West. Someone feels the regime is going to collapse and he wants a post in the new regime—how is he going to win that post? By ensuring good relations with the EU! The EU is buying agents, France is buying agents, the US is buying agents. These people in those parties are for sale.
The point is this regime is heading toward collapse. If you had asked ten years ago, “where are those dogs [party members “for sale”]?” you would have found them working with the regime.
You’ve said repeatedly that the regime is going to collapse, but how exactly do you expect this to happen? What pressures are going to induce collapse?
That doesn’t concern me. The justifications for its existence have expired. This regime was supported by the United States and by the Soviet Union. It ruled by means of terrorism: murder, torture, terror. Now it is incapable because society has rejected it. It has rejected the regime because the regime has oppressed the people, denied them their freedoms. The international arena plays a role. Hafez al-Assad was a prop of US policy in the region; he killed 30,000 people and the US didn’t say a thing. Now they kill one and look at the US response! It is because the US has realized that Syria can no longer serve American interests, so the US wants to change the regime. This is the biggest crisis that the regime is facing.
The opposition hasn’t accomplished anything in the last five years, but the situation has improved with regard to the number of political prisoners, the behavior of the secret police, and freedom of opinion. This is not the result of Bashar’s newfound rationality or the deliberate policy of the regime—it’s the result of the weakening of the regime.
The regime is facing unprecedented pressures from the US and France on account of the Iraqi issue and the assassination of Hariri. It could easily fall like Milosevic’s regime, especially since it does not have a popular base to protect it. This regime is in its death throes.
But presumably the Syrian regime, were it to come under enough pressure, would submit to American demands if only for the sake of survival. Do you think it can offer up the necessary concessions and still remain in power?
No. If it were to abandon its claim to the whole of Golan and make peace with Israel, if it were to declare an end to its enmity toward America, what is it supposed to say to the people?
What do you expect from the Mehlis report?
I am convinced that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the assassination. The loss of Lebanon was a tremendous blow politically. Lebanon was the cash cow for the Syrian regime; Rami Makhlouf alone profited billions from his electricity projects. They robbed the country and turned it into a province of Syria.
There are crimes that were committed whose sole aim was to terrify. The killing of Hariri was nothing in comparison to the murder of thousands of Lebanese. This file will be opened. Thus Syria is facing a huge crisis. If Syria looses Syria, looses its influence in Palestine, and is no longer able to play a role in Iraq, it will have failed as a regional power.
Do you hope that the Mehlis report will point the finger at the Syrian regime? Do you think that the opposition would benefit?
All I want is the truth. Of course, the mere fact that Syria has been accused of the assassination has benefited the opposition. This crime has only further demonstrated the true nature of this regime, that it only acts through murder and brute force.
You don’t fear that were the Mehlis report to blame Syria, the UN or at least the US would impose debilitating economic sanctions on Syria?
The Syrians are besieged by Muhammad Makhlouf and Rami Makhlouf more than they could possibly be besieged by the United Nations. Even the newsstands: they barely make anything, but the profits go to those cronies. They own all the restaurants. All of the oil is theirs. How could we possibly be more besieged?