The Neil Armstrong of the Arab world, Mohammed Faris has an office in a shackled building in Istanbul’s Fatih also said as ‘little Syria’. Muhammed Faris is a refugee, 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. Here, hundreds of miles from his birthplace, Aleppo, he campaigns for democratic change “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. 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.
With Russian cosmonauts, he carried out scientific experiments and photographed Syria from space “Those seven days 23 hours and five minutes changed my life,” says Faris.“When you have seen the whole world through your window there is no us and them, no politics.”
While in space, Faris decided to quit the military and make it his mission to educate his people in science and astronomy, “to pass on this privileged view I had been given”.
Faris asked the then president to fund a national space science institute to help other Syrians to follow him into space. The answer was simply “no”.
“He [Hafez Assad] wanted to keep his people uneducated and divided, with limited understanding,” says Faris. “That’s how dictators stay in power. The very thought of giving the people the vision that a space science institute would give them was dangerous.” Instead, Faris was installed at the air force college, teaching hundreds of young men to fly jet fighters. He may have been Top Gun but Faris says his were “empty powers”.
When Hafez died and his son, Bashar, took over in 2000, Faris was among the first to meet him. “Like his father, Bashar was an enemy to society,” says Faris.
“When the protests started, they were nothing but peaceful, for months on end.” Faris says he and his wife joined in, marching in Damascus, and calling for peaceful reform. Meanwhile they were threatened by supporters of the Assad regime for doing so but did not stop. “These were my people, all of them are my people, our people,” he says. Faris and his wife discussed the protests directly with the leadership, calling on them to make gentle changes, but “they [the Assads] thought they were gods”.
When the violence began, Faris watched as his former students were “brainwashed” into attacking their own people. “They were told if they did not attack they would be killed by the rebels.” Today, some of Faris’s best former students are military leaders, controlling airports and crucial government sites but most have left. “It is mainly just the Alawites who have stayed by Assad’s side,” Faris says.
In his Istanbul office, the 64-year-old still has the medals he won from the Soviet Union: the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union award, the highest of all honours. His former colleagues and friends in Russia have offered help. But he spits in disgust at the idea of claiming asylum there. “Putin is not the Soviet Union. These Russians, they are killers and criminals and supporters of murderers.
“They have blood on their hands of more than 2,000 civilians,” he says. Since he arrived in Turkey, Russia has invited him to many conferences, but he has refused until certain conditions are met. “They must stop their violence. The problem is I understand the way they think, unfortunately, so I cannot be their friend.”
“My dream is to sit in my country with my garden and see children play outside without the fear of bombs,” says Faris. “We will see it, I know we will see it. I just wanted a better future for my children, but external influence on the revolution has messed it all up. It’s very difficult.” With tears in his eyes, he speaks of the early days of the revolution. He believes that the rise of Isis is partly the fault of other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and says he does not have a solution for the current situation. Yet he is certain that “it’s not religion and weapons that will solve this, it is hope”.