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Syria’s first astronaut dies in Turkiye aged 73

April 21, 2024 at 9:14 am

Syrian astronaut Muhammed Ahmed Faris, in Istanbul, Turkey on November 28, 2019 [Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

The first Syrian and Muslim astronaut to enter space has died at the age of 73 in Turkiye, 14 years after fleeing Syria and becoming the most prominent revolutionary and critic of the Assad regime.

According to Syrian opposition and Turkish media outlets, Muhammed Ahmed Faris passed away on Friday from a longstanding illness which has not yet been revealed. Although further details of his death are not yet clarified, the loss was confirmed by Hadi al-Bahra, president of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition.

Born on 26 May 1951 in the Syrian city of Aleppo, Faris graduated as a pilot in the Syrian Air Force before being selected to join the Soviet Union’s Interkosmos program in 1985. Following the final selection and training process – in which the Soviets selected him, a Sunni, as the final candidate instead of the Syrian regime’s primary choices of Alawite or Druze – Faris launched into space with fellow Soviet cosmonauts on 22 July 1987.

He carried out observations of Syria from orbit and took part in science investigations such as material processing and biological experiments, before returning to earth a week later as a Syrian national hero.

Faris continued to serve in the Syrian military and rose through the ranks to become a general, serving as head of the country’s Air-Force academy. Upon the death of president Hafez al-Assad and the ascension of his son Bashar al-Assad, Faris was appointed as a military advisor to the regime.

Then the Syrian revolution erupted in 2011, with peaceful protests sweeping throughout the country, which he and his wife themselves took part in. According to an interview with The Guardian newspaper almost a decade ago, Faris directly discussed the protests at the time with the Syrian leadership and urged it to make gentle reforms. That approach was reportedly not heeded, though, as “they [the Assads] thought they were gods”.

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In August 2012, Faris then successfully fled Syria with his family by driving over the Turkish border, becoming the most prominent and highest-ranking defector from the Assad regime. Since then, he lived in Istanbul, essentially as a refugee like millions of other Syrians who fled the regime, although his status and prominence often earned him the position as an advisor to the Turkish government on policies toward refugees and support for the Syrian revolution.

Throughout his last years, Faris always remained a vocal critic of the Assad regime which continues to rule much of his homeland, revealing in the Guardian interview that the elder president Assad refused to fund a national space science institute which could have helped other Syrians follow the path to space.

“He wanted to keep his people uneducated and divided, with limited understanding”, according to the Syrian national hero. “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”. Faris also said of the younger Assad that “Like his father, Bashar was an enemy to society”.

At the end of his life, Faris was unable to fulfil his dream of seeing Syria free of the dictatorship and returning to his homeland, with the Syrian revolution continuing – with difficulty, divisions, and a lack of international support – in its struggle against Assad 13 years on.

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