18 May 2007
Embrace democracy, Syria's top dissident urges Assad
Khaled Yacoub Oweis
Syrian dissident Riad al-Turk urged President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday to lead Syria on the path to democracy or face a political "earthquake" he said could shake Assad's firm hold on power.
"The survival of any system is ultimately tied to support from the people. It takes only one event," Turk told Reuters.
"An earthquake can be avoided if Bashar chooses the path of reconciliation, democratic change and ousting of the corrupt. It could happen, but I don't expect it," Turk said.
At 77, Turk remains the leading opponent of Syria's Baathist-led government, unperturbed by more than 17 years of solitary confinement he spent as a political prisoner.
Assad, who is poised to secure a second term through a referendum this month, has taken steps to open the economy since succeeding his late father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, while keeping almost intact a political system that bans opposition.
The 41-year president clamped down on dissent while relations with Washington worsened over Syria's role in Lebanon and Iraq, and its alliance with Iran. Assad said in a recent speech that more progress was needed in curbing corruption and making the government accountable.
Syria's isolation from the West has eased in recent months with Washington talking to Damascus about stabilising Iraq.
"Regimes in Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have benefited from the American blunders in Iraq," Turk said in an interview at his modest flat in the town of Tel north of Damascus.
Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in a coup four decades ago. A large number of dissidents were jailed or fled abroad. An uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood was crushed in the 1980s.
Unlike other leftists, Turk refused to strike political deals with the elder Assad. He was jailed and held in solitary confinement for 17 years. Assad released Turk before making a rare visit to France in 1998.
Unrepentant, Turk described Syria as "kingdom of silence" and resumed his criticism of its armed intervention in Lebanon.
When Bashar came to power in 2000, Turk called upon him to change Syria's political course. He spent another 15 months in prison for leading the "Damascus Spring", a period of political debate that lasted for around a year after Assad came to power.
Although international pressure on the Baathists has eased, and the party retains control over education and the media in Syria, Turk said dissidents were succeeding in spreading democratic thought.
He pointed to the Damascus Declaration, signed two years ago by major opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, which called for free elections and a democratic constitution.
"We reject oppression but we're also against foreign intervention. A consensus is developing among moderate Islamists, nationalists, liberals and leftists and others who have cast away totalitarian thinking," he said.
But Turk said nationalists and democrats were threatened by the spread of militant Islam and sectarianism after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Arab governments had also helped the militants by focusing their clampdown on "democratic forces", he said.
"Where does the ordinary citizen go?" Turk said. "He goes toward God to save him from this misery and he is embraced by the clerics. When the citizen has no option he becomes an easy prey in the hands of the fundamentalists."