A Syrian Dissident’s Lecture Shows How the Country Missed Its Reforming Moment

In the summer of 2001, Riad al-Turk gave a talk in Damascus. Ten years later, when the Arab Spring exploded, it proved prophetic

A Syrian Dissident’s Lecture Shows How the Country Missed Its Reforming Moment
Syrians read the first issue of a new newspaper, “The Voice of the People,” in 2001, during a brief moment of political openness known as the “Damascus Spring.” (Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s Introduction

In the summer of 2001, there was an uncharacteristic opening in the Baath Party’s total control of Syrian politics, brought about by the death of the country’s longtime ruler, Hafez al-Assad.

In this environment, as Hafez’s son Bashar took the reins of power, Syria’s intellectuals and dissidents started meeting to debate the future of the country through various forums, often hosted in private homes.

Held mainly in Damascus, they attracted political activists, former political prisoners, intellectuals — and, of course, Baathists who were there to cause trouble, as well as regime informants. This moment of political and intellectual activity came to be known as the “Damascus Spring.”

On Aug. 5, 2001, the recently deceased Riad al-Turk (1930-2024) gave a talk at one of these forums, dubbed the Atassi Forum, in honor of the late Syrian political figure, Jamal al-Atassi. New Lines is pleased to present the talk below for the first time in English translation (in abridged form), in partnership with Al-Jumhuriya, where the full text is published in Arabic.

Al-Turk’s address, titled, “The Path and Prospects of Democracy in Syria,” in some ways marked the high point of the Damascus Spring, the moment when various intellectual currents began to coalesce into more coherent political ideas. He started by looking back instead of looking forward, a puzzling decision that can be explained by the state of Syria in 2001. By that stage, al-Turk was in his 70s and had spent a total of some two decades in prison, including almost 18 years in solitary confinement. More than 30 years had passed since the coup that launched Hafez’s dictatorship. Most Syrians knew no other leader — and no other political program.

For al-Turk, and others like him, situating the country’s political changes in the context of their own internal, domestic opposition was vital. Otherwise, Syrians may have seen their ideas as foreign imports. “Our pursuit of democracy,” he said at the beginning of his lecture, “is not some foreign gimmick.”

Al-Turk hoped the changing of the guard from Hafez to his weaker son might allow a “new era” to commence: Not one of widespread political change, but one in which the acknowledgment of the existence of a crisis might allow some room for alternative perspectives. He was hopeful; he thought that people had sensed a new possibility. The whole lecture was imbued with the belief that change, in one form or another, was realizable.

For readers today, familiar with the subsequent events of the Arab Spring, the lecture can seem surprisingly accepting of the idea of gradual change. The revolutionary writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh — who formerly belonged to the same dissident communist party as al-Turk, and was imprisoned himself for 16 years at the same time as his comrade — calls the Damascus Spring a moment of “relative optimism.” At that point, Syria’s dissidents envisioned a transition from authoritarianism to democracy unfolding incrementally.

In the latter part of al-Turk’s lecture, there is an implicit threat in the evocation of Hitler’s Third Reich and the Soviet Union, both of which collapsed suddenly and violently — just as, a decade later, the House of Assad almost did. There is an element of prophecy in al-Turk’s address.

The change al-Turk and his fellow democratic dissidents sought never materialized. Within a month of the lecture, in September 2001, the Damascus Spring came to an end. Intellectuals and activists were rounded up. Having only just been released from over 17 years of imprisonment, al-Turk was jailed yet again.

Al-Haj Saleh sees the seeds of the 2011 uprising in that brief moment of hopefulness. “In a way, the Syrian revolution that erupted a decade later can be seen as the revenge of the Damascus Spring, a kind of return of the repressed,” he tells New Lines. “It took the ownership of politics from private houses to public spaces, from Damascus to everywhere in the country, and from the elite to the people.”

That brief opening was, in some ways, an experiment. Hafez had essentially privatized politics for three decades. His son, weak and in need of support across the country, tested the waters by loosening, ever so slightly, the regime’s stranglehold on political expression. But, as al-Haj Saleh notes, “Taking ownership of politics means actualizing citizenship, and taking ownership of the state itself, which was (and remains) the private property of a family, its cronies, and now their protectors.”

Bashar was ultimately unwilling to do this and, after a security crackdown in the autumn of 2001, repressive politics as usual returned to Syria — until, a decade later, the Syrian people attempted to take ownership of the country’s politics. But this time, al-Haj Saleh notes, they were met with “fire and blood,” not mere detention.

Riad al-Turk was affectionately known as “the cousin.” The Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Ali Atassi made two documentaries that centered this sobriquet, “The Cousin” (2001) and “The Cousin Online” (2012). Al-Turk remained committed to the democratic struggle during the revolution and subsequent war, by which point he was in his 80s. Only in 2018 did he finally leave Syria. Al-Haj Saleh, who wrote a poignant tribute to al-Turk for Al-Jumhuriya, tells New Lines that his erstwhile comrade died “along the long road of struggle to reclaim Syria for its people.”

Below is the lecture al-Turk delivered in Damascus in 2001.

The Path and Prospects of Democracy in Syria

Countless Syrians, possibly numbering in the hundreds of thousands, are engaging in various forms of true dissent in their daily lives outside of prison, waiting for the opportune moment to express their genuine thoughts and feelings. Our pursuit of democracy is an integral part of our history and identity in Syria, and is not some foreign gimmick.

Given the current situation, discussing democracy is more a political necessity than a theoretical debate. Therefore, my talk will address both the present challenges and future possibilities, drawing lessons from the period since our independence. I will divide this discussion into two eras: firstly, from the 1940s to the 1960s, and secondly, from the 1960s to the present.

The political system established in Syria in the early 1940s, particularly post-independence, was a parliamentary democracy. This decision to implement a Western-style parliamentary system was not solely a result of the French occupation of Syria after World War I. It also emerged from the deliberate choices of Western-influenced intellectuals and politicians in the Levant. This was evident in the General Syrian Congress of 1919, where they strongly advocated for this system. The congress established a committee, led by Hashem al-Atassi, to draft a constitution for the kingdom under King Faisal, focusing on upholding a parliamentary system. Notably, this constitution was, in many aspects, more progressive than its Western counterparts, particularly regarding women’s rights.

The primary force underpinning and sustaining the system was the bourgeoisie, shaped by the legacies of feudalism and the influence of landowners. It is important to recognize that a segment of the bourgeoisie participated in the fight against colonizers alongside the populace. However, during the ensuing turbulent era, these groups failed to rise to the occasion, fostering public resentment. As noted by the late independence fighter Abdul Bar Eyoun al-Soud, the bourgeoisie perceived independence as the ultimate goal and hastily sought to reap its benefits, neglecting the Syrian people’s 25-year-long struggle.

The authority of these traditional forces was undermined by three key factors:

  • Formality and monopolization of the democratic process, a situation that resulted in the weakening and partial oppression of emerging democratic forces.
  • The political leaders exhibited poor performance in both consolidating independence and in dealing with external forces that were conspiring against them. They adopted an approach of appeasement and evasiveness instead of firm resistance. This failure to stand against imperialist strategies contributed to the emergence of Israel at the center of the Arab world.
  • The emergence of national democratic parties and various other groups as opposition forces marked a significant shift. These groups advocated for nationalist and democratic objectives that were both more cohesive and radical. This approach granted these parties considerable influence in the political arena.

During this period, Syria experienced a series of coups that disrupted the democratic process and produced despotic regimes. One of the effects of ousting the dictatorial regime of Adib Shishakli (in 1954) was a rise in the significance of smaller socioeconomic groups, both urban and rural, which went on to play a major and decisive role next to the bourgeoisie, which was still a major if declining player.

During that era, Syrians experienced a democratic process that is now looked back upon with nostalgia. This period was hallmarked by a commitment to liberty, respect for electoral outcomes and the advancement of national and patriotic interests. Notable examples include Syria’s solidarity with Egypt during the Tripartite Aggression and the widespread support for the union with Egypt under the United Arab Republic. Additionally, there were significant social advancements, especially for laborers and farmers, despite the predominance of an official bourgeoisie in public life. From 1955 to 1957, the democratic process was multifaceted: It not only provided freedom for political forces, groups and citizens but also manifested the concept of “the people,” highlighting their role and public interest. This atmosphere also enabled religious groups to engage in politics as national stakeholders.

Nevertheless, these new forces harbored distinct political leanings, leading to divergences in their social and political goals. Key among these actors were the military bloc, the Arab Socialist Baath Party and the Syrian Communist Party. While structurally similar, the Syrian Communist Party’s domestic and foreign political ambitions were more closely aligned with Soviet interests rather than stemming from broader national or popular objectives. This alignment was evident in several major developments.

These blocs largely defined the Syrian political landscape in the post-independence era up to the 1960s. This was with the exception of a brief period of secessionist government, during which the bourgeoisie regained power.

Several key points stand out in analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the social forces and political parties of that era:

  • The United Arab Republic (UAR) was a significant achievement, reflecting the Arab nation’s desire for nationalist unification and serving as a political counter to Western alliances and aggression.
  • The secession revealed the UAR’s vulnerabilities. The dissolution of parties and the establishment of bureaucratic and security institutions weakened its foundations. This led to direct leader-people relationships, fostering corruption and dictatorship, as seen in personalist rule and the marginalization of the populace’s role and representation.
  • Post-secession, the relationship among national and democratic forces shifted from collaboration to competition and conspiracy, undermining political trust.
  • Hostility grew between communists and nationalists, with both sides discrediting the other. The Syrian Communist Party opposed unification under the guise of Syria’s unique democratic stance, reflecting Soviet concerns.
  • Post-secession, intense competition overshadowed the original goal of unification. This led to a diminishing political sphere and the elimination of pluralism.
  • The political climate shifted away from dialogue about the development of the country and democracy improvement toward a fierce power struggle, breeding tribalism and reducing parties to mere facades.

Prior to 1963, specifically before July 1963, the struggle for power among various entities operated under generally accepted rules and regulations. These norms acknowledged the ballot as the decisive factor, allowing for the coexistence and participation of diverse political groups. This environment fostered diversity and allowed different political viewpoints to be expressed. Even during the coups between 1949 and 1954, political rivals were not eradicated by the military junta. However, the landscape shifted dramatically after March 8, 1963, and again in July 1963. The concept of a “leader party” emerged in state and societal vocabulary, signaling a transition to a political arena dominated exclusively by the Baath Party. This left other groups with little choice but to withdraw from politics. Operating covertly or engaging in “conspiracy” became exceedingly risky, particularly under the state of emergency, which empowered the repressive apparatus. As a result, the criteria for political participation altered, bringing in a different type of political player.

Another development was the sidelining of the Nasserists when the power struggle shifted to the military and within the Baath Party. This transition gradually diminished their role, leading to their marginalization with the Corrective Movement of 1970 and its aftermath. A consequence of this conflict was a series of purges targeting certain party figures, accompanied by extensive dismissals within the military. These dismissals often carried sectarian, tribal or geographic connotations.

In the social realm, it’s fair to acknowledge the expansion of nationalization to encompass medium and small factories, alongside the strengthening of agricultural reform laws and other initiatives. However, these measures were not without controversy within the Baath Party. This internal discord eventually culminated in the ousting of the leftist Baath faction, followed by the nationalist Baath in the coup of February 1966.

Politically, the struggle persisted with Nasserist factions that were formed after the secession, notably the Arab Socialist Union, established in 1964 by the prominent activist Jamal al-Atassi. (Here, I must express admiration for al-Atassi, who transformed this very home we are in into a haven for friends, party members, comrades and anyone devoted to their nation. Al-Atassi was a man of insight, humility, and warmth. His interactions were characterized by the spirit of a true fighter, prioritizing the unity and future of his nation and democracy above all. I extend my respects to the family of our late friend, and pray for Allah’s blessings on this house, for al-Atassi’s daughters, widow and grandsons). The significance of this party lies in its efforts to infuse the principles of democracy and Pan-Arabism into the core of Nasserist, Arab nationalist ideology.

This period also witnessed a major shift with the Arab-Israeli conflict significantly impacting the regional status quo. In June 1967, Israel’s expansionist aggression captured more territories, delivering a severe blow to the notion of “progressive national regimes.” Concurrently, the Palestinian resistance emerged as a key player, while various forces and regimes involved in the conflict sought to reassess and reposition themselves.

Despite the valor of the October War, it failed to halt the overall decline in the Arab world, a trend that continued unabated. The First Intifada, and similarly the Second Intifada, which we hold in high esteem, were unable to reverse this downward spiral without fundamental changes in the prevailing conditions of the Arab world.

With President Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power, the regime underwent a transformation into a presidential system tailored to his leadership. This shift led to a personalization of the regime, epitomized by the slogan “The Unique and Inspiring Leader,” replacing “The Leading Party of the State and Society.” This slogan influenced the actions of state officials, the party and the National Progressive Front, all orbiting around the central figure of the leader. Political influence was gauged more by proximity to the president than by ideas, popularity or position, leading to the dismissal of any political activity not aligned with this rule. New rules emerged, differing from the collective or semi-collective approaches of Assad’s military and civilian peers in the upper echelons of power.

In the early 1970s, there was a marked departure from previous years. This era was characterized by efforts to break domestic and international isolation, notably through the establishment of the National Progressive Front, local administrative structures, the People’s Assembly of Syria and a permanent constitution. Concurrently, there was a focus on army modernization, in tandem with Egypt and aided by the Soviet Union. The October War represented a significant shift, accompanied by an influx of oil money, infrastructure development and rapid economic growth that reshaped the country’s social and economic fabric. However, this transformation also led to wealth consolidation and corruption.

During this phase, the regime increasingly centralized around the personalist leader and the security apparatus, sidelining the people and confining them within new boundaries, including an inflated party structure designed to keep them out of politics. As the regime’s totalitarian nature became more apparent and personalist rule crystallized, political and social forces, along with independent democratic figures, began to distance themselves, especially as they felt increasingly marginalized.

The regime resorted to intimidation and enticement for compliance, as no single narrative could encompass the diversity of political expression. A culture of pretense and fear emerged, where public behavior aligned with regime expectations, but private beliefs remained inconsequential. This led to widespread participation in pro-regime demonstrations, driven by despair and compliance.

The last two decades of the century were characterized by stagnation across political, economic and social domains, under the pretext of “stability.” This stagnation was domestically supported by intimidation and internationally by the balances of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the outbreak of the Second Gulf War highlighted the need for change. However, the regime had become too rigid and self-interested, leading to marginalization, oppression and exploitation of the populace. The late president’s illness, during which leadership was absent, exacerbated this stagnation. This period resulted in acute social disparities, concentrating wealth in a few hands while the majority languished near starvation. Deep crises pervaded all aspects of life.

The influx of foreign cash and political influence forced a reckoning with economic, social and political realities, signaling a crisis that could only be addressed through change.

After the death of President Hafez al-Assad, Dr. Bashar al-Assad ascended to the presidency, marking the start of a new era. A notable shift in this era was the transformation of the personalist presidential regime. The transition of power from father to son resulted in a hybrid regime, neither purely republican nor monarchical, but a mix of both, often termed a “hereditary republican regime.”

Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power was the culmination of three distinct wills, excluding the expression of popular will: the late president’s intent, the ambitions of influential regime figures and the aspirations of the son himself. Claims of social consensus in this transition are largely seen as empty, serving more as propaganda than reality.

This issue has been widely discussed in dissident media and political circles. A critical viewpoint came from the National Democratic Rally, which criticized the constitutional amendment to suit an individual, arguing that it contravenes democratic principles and creates a perception of hereditary presidential succession. This is seen as contradictory not only to the republican system established before Hafez al-Assad but also to the traditions of political parties like the Arab Socialist Baath Party and even the dogmatic and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

Despite the unchanged status quo, we recognize the different tone and language in Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration compared to his predecessor’s. This includes an open admission of a crisis, long denied, and an implicit recognition of political opposition by acknowledging dissenting opinions. By admitting that there is no “magic wand” to resolve the crisis, the regime indirectly acknowledges the ineffectiveness of authoritarian structures to manage the situation alone. These statements suggest a need for greater openness and political reform, something that has previously been denied and avoided.

The current situation is complicated by several external factors. These include the ruling regime’s international relationships, intensified tensions with Israel during the governments of Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon and the dynamics with Arab states, particularly regarding Syria’s presence in Lebanon following Israel’s withdrawal from the south. Despite some troop withdrawals by the Syrian regime, Lebanon’s society and political forces largely oppose Syria’s presence and interference in domestic affairs. There is a need to reshape the Syrian-Lebanese political and military relationship to support resistance against Israel and protect the south while respecting Lebanese sovereignty and avoiding political interference, especially by the Syrian security apparatus.

Solidarity with the Iraqi people is also crucial, involving opposition to unjust Security Council resolutions, ending blockades and resisting U.S. pressure to reverse agreements with Iraq. Resuming relations with Iraq is beneficial for both nations.

These foreign challenges underscore the necessity for openness and empowering the populace to play a more effective role. Yet these calls are often ignored, with the old guard maintaining their traditional methods, interests and strategies. They attempt to navigate these issues, striving to neutralize external influences to dominate the domestic scene.

On a different note, there are developments in three specific areas, albeit minor and less significant than what is needed.

Three key issues currently characterize the social and political climate:

  • Fear has become deeply ingrained in our country’s social and political fabric. People often conceal their true thoughts, even in private, and are hesitant to engage in public affairs for fear of surveillance and detention. While there has been a slight reduction in fear, particularly among the cultural and political elite, it hasn’t yet reached a level that revitalizes public life. This slight improvement in freedom of expression, though minimal, is significant compared to the prolonged period of oppression.
  • Closely linked to fear, there has been a shift in the methods of the security apparatus. The prevalent use of arrests and deprivation of freedom has been somewhat replaced by intensified surveillance, interrogations and summons. This approach continues to exert psychological pressure on the populace, maintaining a state of readiness to revert to more repressive measures if necessary.
  • The regime has prioritized economic reforms, deferring political reforms to focus on the economy and people’s livelihoods. However, the lack of tangible progress has fueled skepticism. While there are indications of economic reform in new decrees, these have not yet materialized into actionable changes. The regime’s resistance to change (whether direct or through bureaucratic inertia), administrative inefficiency and the self-interest of those in power are evident.

Overall, the situation can be described as a comprehensive crisis of stagnation and lack of progress in economic, social and political dimensions.

This period of stagnation is often defended by the regime as a means to maintain stability and continuity, aligning with the interests of authoritarians and profiteers who resist change for fear of uncertain outcomes. The entrenched status quo is powerfully maintained.

Backwardness is often disguised as cultural uniqueness, with democracy being manipulated to fit the ruling authority’s needs, leading to increased oppression. Economic reform is blocked under the pretext of preserving past achievements, but in reality it protects the interests of those profiting from corruption.

The crisis is characterized by a lack of prospects and hitting a dead end. The economy struggles with liquidity, investment and unemployment, hindered by corruption, bureaucracy and the lack of a robust legal system. The public sector lacks bold and competent reform. Socially, there is an absence of activism and public engagement, marked by discrimination and fear. Politically, there is a lack of consensus on national issues and confusion regarding international relations, especially concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Baath Party, with its vast membership, is largely inactive, with leaders seen as relics of the past. Opposition parties lack direction and have become complacent, accepting their weakened state.

Despite these challenges, there is a growing sense that change is possible. Some elites have proposed ways to break from the status quo, initiating forums to discuss social and cultural issues. However, the regime’s suppression of these forums has reinforced skepticism and fear.

There is a lack of influential forces actively addressing the country’s needs. Neither capitalist nor Islamist forces have effectively proposed or organized viable programs. Democratic dissidents have struggled to mobilize effectively to address the people’s needs and aspirations.

Politically, the situation is a “balance of weakness,” where both the regime and the opposition are feeble. This state requires considerable effort to change rigid positions and find a solution to this major dilemma.

Mouaffaq Nyrabia (a Syrian writer and activist) poses a critical question: Is this period the beginning of a new, different era, or just a continuation of the past decades, perpetuating the same challenges for the Syrian people?

The challenge of transitioning from despotism to democracy is complex. It is evident that reform and change cannot solely rely on the authority itself, nor can it be achieved through a top-down revolution or “presidential reform.” The current leadership and forces aligned with the regime lack the capacity or structure to drive meaningful reform. The experience of the past year and the intricacies of the internal crisis, compounded by foreign complications and the confrontation with Israel, highlight this.

To initiate change, it’s essential to build confidence and inspire hope in the people, but the conditions for this transformation are not yet in place. Political change can occur in various forms:

  • Violent change to overthrow the regime, which currently lacks the necessary conditions, willingness for sacrifice and logistical capabilities.
  • Change through parliament in a country where the regime manipulates representation.
  • Self-initiated change by the ruler, a “top-to-bottom” revolution, as Marx described in 19th-century Germany.
  • Change through an agreement between a regime, recognizing its inability to continue governing amid a deepening crisis, and other forces willing to engage in dialogue and enact agreed-upon reforms.

Transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy is a long, arduous and complex struggle. Considering all potential routes out of this structural dilemma, the key question becomes uniting the opposition, centralizing political activism and firmly committing to comprehensive democratic reform.

In historical context, a despotic state in Europe marked the transition from feudalism to capitalism, or from fragmented sovereignty to democracy, with figures like Louis XIV and Bismarck exemplifying this phase. In Latin America, authoritarian models are common, where rulers wield power in the people’s name, establishing a hierarchy based on self-made or ignored laws. Economic and social spheres are dominated by orders and directives, and political decisions often defy logic.

Totalitarian states, as seen in the examples of Mussolini, Hitler and the Soviet Union, incorporate everything into the state’s ambit, leaving no room for opposition. This is achieved through a dominant party that sometimes acts like a militia, or through “popular organizations” that organize everyone under a hegemonic structure.

While Syria exhibits traits of these various “states,” it does not fully conform to any one model, presenting a unique challenge in its path to democracy.

This transition from despotism to democracy can be viewed as a natural stage in the history of states, though it’s a relatively late development in the context of global political evolution. The regime’s support is often rationalized through a “benevolent despot” ideology, where supporters believe in the regime’s goodwill. However, to achieve real change, we must consider the possibility of a more inclusive, fourth kind of transition, which many may prefer due to exhaustion. There are five critical points for discussion:

  • Redressing injustices involves restoring trust and security by apologizing to and compensating those wronged by the regime, releasing political prisoners, allowing exiles to return, revealing the fate of the missing, repealing emergency laws and reforming the security forces.
  • It’s essential to identify the elements of national dialogue and involve all stakeholders in the public sphere for transparent, honest discussions without hidden agendas or authoritarian tactics.
  • National reconciliation between the people, regime and opposition is crucial, but it requires building trust through tangible steps that favor settlement over hostility.
  • All political forces, including the Baath Party, opposition groups and Islamist movements, should acknowledge each other and commit to self-reform and reorganization.
  • Formulate a program for democratic change with a structured, timed approach that aligns with national interests and modernization. This should be a gradual process, leading to a democratic regime underpinned by a modern constitution.

Support for reform is vital, but it requires genuine intent and action. Change is inevitable. History progresses, and those who resist or hesitate will be left behind. Therefore, it is imperative to work towards alleviating the suffering of the people, who yearn for a future of freedom, dignity and security.

Published in partnership with Al-Jumhuriya.

Further reading:

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, “Farewell to Riad al-Turk” (Al-Jumhuriya)

Leila Al-Shami, “Riad al-Turk’s Lifelong Struggle for a Free and Democratic Syria” (New Lines)

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