As a colonel in the Syrian Air Force, Muhammed Faris joined a Soviet mission to the space station Mir in 1987. He was the first (and only) Syrian in space. The Soviets awarded Faris its Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union medals upon his return. After going back home to Syria, the cosmonaut rejoined Syria’s Air Force under dictator Hafiz al-Asad, father of current dictator, Bashar al-Asad.
Eventually, Faris became a general, but when the uprisings in Syria started, he and his wife joined the opposition protests in Damascus. As the regime got more brutal, he decided to flee to Turkey the next year.
“It was a choice,” he told the Daily Sabah, a Turkish newspaper. “Instead of living there as a ‘hero’ while my people were suffering, I preferred to live in tough conditions in exile with my honor.” Today he lives in Istanbul with his wife and children.
Despite receiving the highest awards the Soviet Union could give, Faris openly criticized the Russian intervention in his home country. He wants Western leaders to recognize that the only way to end the violence and stem the flow of refugees is to oust Asad.
“I tell Europe if you don’t want refugees, then you should help us get rid of this regime,” he told The Associated Press.
Russia and Syria have a long history of cooperation, extending way back to the founding of modern Syria after World War II. Russia supported Syrian independence from France. Since then, the Russians have provided the various Syrian regimes with aid and military assistance. This aid continued throughout the Cold War and through the elder Asad’s regime.
The Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War has reportedly killed more civilians than ISIS fighters, while refugees continue to pour out of Syria. So far, Syria has 7.6 million people displaced internally with untold millions fleeing to other countries.“My dream is to sit in my country with my garden and see children play outside without the fear of bombs,” Faris told The Guardian. “We will see it, I know we will see it.”