ISTANBUL — After spending seven years in jail for challenging Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and surviving a travel ban of more than a decade, one of the country’s most respected political dissidents has left Damascus and taken up an active leadership role in the fractious resistance movement.
Riad Seif, 66, a businessman turned-politician, flew out of Syria on July 13 after receiving permission for reasons that he said were not explained.
Seif took on both Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez, before him, and paid for his audacity when the government bankrupted his business, suspended his parliamentary immunity and threw him in jail.
When his latest jail term ended in mid-2010, he quit active dissident politics, only to jump back into the fray when revolution swept through the Arab world early last year. He got beaten twice and jailed for another 10 days, but instead of lowering his profile, became the only representative in Damascus of the Syrian National Council, the group Washington recognizes as an umbrella for anti-Assad opposition.
Now ailing with prostate cancer and recovering from a heart operation, he made clear in an interview with McClatchy that he has no intention of quitting as long as his health allows.
And in one of his first actions following an operation in Germany to open a nearly closed heart vein, he flew to Moscow with other SNC leaders in early July. There he told Russian leaders that they had to change their policy and drop Assad, accusing them of responsibility for the deaths of as many as 20,000 civilians. He said that Russia and China could quickly bring down Assad if they’d stop vetoing U.N. resolutions that threaten tough sanctions.
“I told Lavrov that the Russians are really responsible for the deaths of Syrians,” he told McClatchy in a series of interviews here, referring to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “Russians are partners in the killings.“
Lavrov “was angry” but “of course he was diplomatic.” Seif recalled. “He didn’t answer.”
Seif didn’t let up.
“I told Lavrov, ‘Imagine your army is shelling your city in Russia. What will you do?’ ” Seif recounted. “They are destroying cities everywhere on the heads of our people.”
On Thursday, Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have called for sanctions if Syria did not pull its heavy weaponry out of residential neighborhoods. The Russians said the proposed resolution would have amounted to backing the rebels in the ongoing violence.
Seid has a track record that few in the resistance movement can match -- a popular politician, a proponent of democratic change, and a manager who was a successful garment manufacturer. In the context of a leadership that is colorless, inaccessible, slow to respond, divided by rivalries and hard-put to raise funds, the low-key Seif is a man of charisma.
He is not a self-promoter, and his talk with McClatchy was his first extensive interview in many years.
Seif is convinced that Assad would quickly meet his end if Russia stopped backing him because Syrians have made their minds up.
“Whatever price the Syrians will pay, they will pay not to have Assad as the president,” he said. “Many people have lost everything, but they do not feel sorry for what has happened. They say, ‘That is the price of freedom and dignity’.”
The Assad dictatorship had “spoiled the outside” appearance of Syria, “but he didn’t go deep in our culture,” he said. “We were humiliated for 40 years. When the time came, and the Syrians could get rid of their fear, they made their miracle. Syrians are not going back to being humiliated by this (regime) again.”
Seif said the movement is growing. He said that businessmen in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two biggest cities, who were not involved in the anti-government movement at the beginning are now. He predicted that Syrian tribal leaders will back Assad’s overthrow and also Syria’s Kurds, many of whom have sat on the fence.
He said with the shifting balance of power, Russia holds the key to the survival of the regime. “Without the Russians, it’s not possible, in my opinion.”
Seif served two separate prison terms under Assad, stemming from his time as a member of Parliament from Damascus. First elected in 1994, as one of a small number of members who didn’t belong to the ruling Baath party, he began a campaign against corruption, enraging what he said was the Syrian “mafia” but delighting the public, and he was re-elected in 1998 with one of the highest totals for any member of Parliament.
When Hafez Assad died and his ophthalmologist son Bashar succeeded him, many Syrians celebrated the introduction of reforms in the economy and in politics. Seif and others set up debate clubs around the country to talk about Syria’s political future, but hard-liners said the clubs had crossed the line and were challenging the legitimacy of the government.
Seif kept his going, protected by parliamentary immunity, and Assad’s government decided to remove him from the scene. They went after his apparel business by imposing taxes that forced him out of business, and the Baath majority lifted his parliamentary immunity. He went to prison in September 2001 for trying “to change the constitution by force,” and didn’t get out until January 2006.
“What force?” he quipped. “I have no tanks.”
He immediately returned to political activism, and hosted a meeting of dissidents who drafted the “Damascus Declaration” in December 2007. He went to prison a month later and served 2-1/2 years, getting out in July 2010.
At that point, Seif said, he decided to retire from politics. Then came the Arab Spring. “The day that Mubarak gave up power, I said, ‘OK, I’m back.’ And now I’m totally involved,” he said, referring to the toppling in February 2011 of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
He was out with the first protesters on March 16, 2011 in front of the interior ministry. At a later protest on May 7, he was beaten badly, his head bloodied, and taken to prison, where he was held for 10 days. Seif returned to the fray in July of 2011, and this time, when security forces aimed at his head, he put up his arms, sustaining multiple fractures in his left arm.
Seif is not one to abandon protest, but he fears his health will stop him. When he went into prison in 2007, he was diagnosed with an advanced case of prostate cancer. But the regime would not allow him to seek treatment abroad, and he relied instead on hormone treatment, which he thinks made the condition worse.
It’s a cause of great frustration for Seif, who with better health might be a candidate to be Syria’s first post-Assad president. He said he doesn’t seek political office and that younger people should be the first to serve. But he wants to see democracy in Syria. “I feel very, very responsible. I feel my duty” toward Syrians, he said. “I hate my illness. Everybody hates an illness. I hate it because now is not the time. I have to do something.”