Formerly a prominent Syrian businessman and parliamentarian, Riad Seif is a leading political dissident who has challenged the Assad regime for more than two decades and is one of two vice presidents of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
Seif’s success as a businessman in the garments industry led him into politics in the early 1990s as he sought market-oriented reforms that would end Syria’s economic stagnation. He was elected to parliament as an independent in 1994 and again in 1998. During his first term, he published a controversial study of the Syrian economy that accused the government of corruption and called for political reform and an honest judiciary in order to attract investors. He later openly criticized the awarding of a mobile-telecommunication-services monopoly to a company owned by Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf. This apparently prompted the Ministry of Finance to accuse Seif of tax evasion and to levy $2 million in fines on his business, bankrupting it.
Seif was a leading figure during the “Damascus Spring” that was spurred by the death of then president Hafez al-Assad in June 2000. Seif also formed the Forum for National Dialogue, aimed at promoting political debate and freedom in Syria, and hosted it in his own house. He lost his parliamentary immunity after calling for an end to the monopoly of political power by the ruling Baath Party and announcing his intention to create a new political party as an alternative to it in September 2001. Seif was arrested the next day and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison on charges of attempting to change the constitution by illegal means and inciting strife.
While in prison, Seif reportedly co-authored and was the first signatory of the Damascus Declaration, which was officially launched in October 2005. He was elected its secretary general after his release in 2006. Seif’s continuing political activity led to harassment, pressure on his business, denial of permission to leave the country for treatment following his diagnosis with prostate cancer, and eventually a second prison term in January 2008.
Following his release in mid-2010, Seif left the Damascus Declaration and suspended his political activity, but he returned to the political forefront at the start of the 2011 uprising. He was the only representative of the Syrian National Council to be based in Damascus after the group’s formation on October 2. Four days later, he sustained multiple injuries after being beaten by government security forces on the same day that fellow opposition figure Mashaal Tammo, a leading Kurdish political activist, was assassinated in the northern city of Qamishli. Seif was allowed to leave the country in June 2012 for medical treatment in Germany, where he has remained ever since. In July, he joined a Syrian National Council delegation that visited Moscow for meetings with Russian officials.
Seif occupied political center stage after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed what U.S. officials referred to as the “Riad Seif plan” on October 31. The plan, which he published the following day, called for revamping the entire Syrian opposition under a new umbrella framework, the Syrian National Initiative. This would incorporate existing groupings and prominent figures in exile, including high-profile regime defectors such as former prime minister Riyad Hijab, and the Local Coordinating Committees and other grassroots networks, local civilian councils, tribal and clan representatives, and military councils from inside Syria. On November 11, 2012, Seif’s plan was formalized when opposition groups meeting in the Qatari capital, Doha—including the Syrian National Council—formed the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Seif was elected one of the new coalition’s two vice presidents.
Born in 1946 to a middle-class family in Damascus, Seif is a liberal-leaning Sunni Muslim. He initially studied natural sciences in college but pursued business interests instead of continuing his studies. Seif began his business career with a shirt factory in 1963, and in 1993 he acquired the franchise to manufacture Adidas products in Syria after the rules on foreign investment were relaxed. In a later interview he claimed that his factory met the needs of the Syrian market and exported to the European Union. During Seif’s first term in parliament, his son Iyad, then twenty-one years old, died under what Seif called “mysterious and suspicious circumstances” on August 2, 1996. Seif was awarded the Weimar Human Rights Award in absentia in 2003 while serving his first prison sentence. In all, he had spent over eight years in prison by the time he left Syria in 2012.