The Guardian reports: The Neil Armstrong of the Arab world has an office in a ramshackle building in Istanbul’s Fatih or “Little Syria”. Muhammed Faris is a refugee, just like the people milling outside, facing up to the hardest challenge in his life; one that has already seen the roles of fighter pilot, spaceman, military advisor to the Assad regime; protester, rebel and defector.
In Syria, Faris is a national hero, with a school, airport and roads named after him. Medals on the wall of his office honour his achievements as an astronaut (or, strictly speaking, a cosmonaut). Here, hundreds of miles from his birthplace, Aleppo, he campaigns for democratic change in Syria, “through words, not weapons”.
In 1985, he was one of four young Syrian men vying to join the Interkosmos training programme, for allies of the Soviet Union, at Star City just outside Moscow. There had been one Arab in space before, Sultan Bin Salman Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, but never a professional Arab spaceman. Despite the thawing of the cold war, US relations with Iran and its ally Syria were deteriorating. Syrian ties to the Soviet Union were strong: Russia supported Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, in his rise to power in a coup in 1970. In return, the Soviets were allowed to open a naval base in Tartus, which remains in Russian hands today. [Continue reading…]