The untold story of the Syrian astronaut

March 05, 2019 18:29
A scene in Damascus. Syria used to be a technological powerhouse in the Middle East.  Photo: Reuters

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to intervene in the Syrian civil war, the Bashar al-Assad regime has been largely able to regain political control of the once war-torn country and re-establish its dictatorship.

Before the bloody civil war, Syria was once a major power in the Middle East that had a substantial lead over its Islamic neighbors in terms of standard of living, scientific development, education and cultural level.

And as a steadfast ally of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War era, Syria was not only a technological powerhouse in the Middle East, but had also produced an astronaut, something that is extremely rare in the Arab world.

In 1987, Syria’s homegrown astronaut, Muhammed Faris, took part in the Soviet Union’s Soyuz TM-3 space program, and went to space with his Russian counterparts.

When Faris returned to Syria, he got a massive welcome and was hailed as a national hero.

At that time Faris was a huge sensation across the entire Middle East, with his pictures being posted almost everywhere; a school, an airport and roads were named after him.

Faris wasn’t the first Arab in history to travel in space. Two years before he joined the Soviet Soyuz program, Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a Saudi astronaut, had already done that aboard the US space shuttle. But that didn’t lessen Faris's stature as a national icon among his Syrian compatriots.

However, Faris’s life took a sudden and unexpected turn following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

As a resident in the city of Aleppo, a stronghold of the insurgents, Faris, much to the surprise of his countrymen, publicly broke off ties with the Assad regime and rooted for the opposition.

As a consequence, Faris later had to flee to Turkey to seek asylum, and soon became a refugee.

His decision to embark on an anti-government journey should not come as a surprise at all. As a majority Sunni, he was actually only put on the waiting list for the Syrian astronaut program by Damascus.

He was finally picked to become a crew member of the Soyuz rocket only because the initial Alawite candidate favored by former president Hafez al-Assad had failed to live up to expectations, and also because of Moscow’s insistence.

After becoming a national hero, Faris was appointed as head of the air force academy, which was only a nominal position. His proposal to establish a national space academy was not accepted by the Syrian authorities.

It was the outbreak of the Arab Spring in late 2010 that prompted Faris to finally rupture with the Syrian regime and side with the opposition out of his decades-old grudge against the Assad family.

Even though the Assad regime did not fall – neither did the insurgency disappear – it will take a long while before Syria can restore its former capability of mounting space programs.

Faris, currently residing in Turkey, has inevitably got involved in the great power rivalry over such issues as Ankara’s stance on the Assad regime, the Islamic State, the Kurdish militias as well as the way forward in the region after the US military withdrawal from Syria.

In my opinion, Faris’s true story is indeed much more legendary yet tragic than the former East German space hero depicted in the 2003 German movie Good Bye Lenin!

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 19

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal