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Riad al-Turk, the ‘Old Man of the Syrian Opposition’

Riad al-Turk’s life has been dedicated to resisting the Syrian government. As an opposition leader, he was detained several times until he fled to France, where he now lives in exile.

Born in Homs, Syria in 1930, the appropriately nicknamed ‘old man of the Syrian opposition’ is a veteran activist and leading figure in the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, a socialist opposition party he founded in 1973.

The party is a member of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella organization for opposition groups set up seven months after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

Al-Turk became involved in politics as a law student when he joined the  Syrian Communist Party, which existed until it split into two different branches in 1986.

He was first arrested soon after finishing law school in 1952 for opposing the military government that seized power in the March 1949 coup. He was held for five months and tortured but was never convicted. He was detained again in 1958 for 16 months for opposing the (temporary) union of Syria and Egypt.

Always an independent thinker, al-Turk led a faction within the party that tended towards Arab nationalism and promoted the unity of Arab people. This tendency was not well received by the rest of the members, such as Khalid Bakdash, then secretary-general.

Syria- Riad al-Turk
Photo AFP

Tensions eventually led al-Turk to establish the Syrian Communist Party – Political Bureau (SCPPB) in 1973 to separate his ideology from Bakdash’s, who by then had merged the Syrian Communist Party with a coalition of organizations allied with the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party and renamed it the National Progressive Front.

The government initially accepted al-Turk’s party, but its opposition to the Syrian intervention in the Lebanese civil war and pressure on the government by Islamists and the secular opposition led to repression.

The consequences for al-Turk were dire. He was imprisoned in solitary confinement from 1980 to 1998. According to human rights organization Amnesty International, he was tortured throughout his detention. He was also deprived of medical treatment for diabetes and suffered from kidney failure and other severe ailments. His family were only able to visit him three times during the last five years of his sentence. His wife, Asma al-Faisal, a medical doctor from Homs, was also arrested but was released a few years later.

Hafez al-Assad, then president, repeatedly offered to free al-Turk on the condition that he publicly backed the regime, but he refused. He eventually agreed to stay away from politics in return for his release, but that did not last long.

Indeed, after Bashar al-Assad took over from his father, al-Turk played a large role in the so-called Damascus Spring, a period of political debate and demands for democratic change in June 2000. In August 2001, al-Turk appeared on al-Jazeera calling for all political factions to unite. “What we need today is reconciliation, and [we] have to work for a new future, forgetting mistakes of the past. In the past, we had a problem with the dictator, and now that problem is over – the dictator is dead,” he said.

He was arrested soon after while seeking medical treatment. He was charged with ‘defying the state and trying to change the constitution by illegal means’. Sentenced to three years in prison, he was released after 15 months. His detention led the international community to protest, especially given his failing health.

Immediately upon his release, al-Turk resumed his political activities but stepped down as secretary of the SCPPB in 2005 after renaming it the Syrian Democratic People’s Party. The same year, he signed the Damascus Declaration, a statement of unity by Syrian opposition figures. It criticized the government as ‘authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish’ and called for democratic reform.

When the uprising erupted in 2011, al-Turk was quick to back the Syrian National Council. However, he went into in hiding until he could escape to France, where one of his daughters lives, in June 2018.

Now aged 88, he remains a fierce defender of democracy and of his country, which continues to be ravaged by war.

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