BEIRUT — Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Fares, who as part of a joint program with Russia was the first Syrian to travel into space, has fled to Turkey after defecting from the Syrian army, according to the the semi-official Turkish Anatolia news agency.
In a YouTube video, Fares, a military aviator, visited a rebel base in Aleppo, his hometown, before heading to Turkey.
In the video Fares tells the rebels, "May God give you strength," adding that "our hearts are with you" and "we have always been with you." Reportedly, he told the rebel commander that it is his fourth attempt to defect.
The opposition says some two dozen Syrian generals have defected to rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad.
Fares, born in Aleppo in 1951, participated in a former Soviet-Syrian space cooperative effort, launching into space aboard the Soyuz M3 spaceship on July 22, 1987. Fares spent eight days on the orbiting space station Mir conducting medical and chemical research experiments.
Many Syrians recall Fares and his telephone conversation from the spaceship with then-Syrian President Hafez Assad, late father of the current president.
During the call Hafez Assad greeted Fares and asked him to thank his "Soviet comrade astronauts and the head of the spaceship." He added that the Syrian people, and Arabs in general, were happy to see his mission. During the conversation, Assad asked Fares, "What do you see when you are at these high altitudes?"
Fares response was: "Mr. President, I am very happy because I see my beloved country. I see it beautiful, I see it great, as it is in reality. I see its great coasts and green beautiful mountains, I see the plains and the proud Mountain of Sheikh and our Golan Heights. I see every inch in it spectacular."
— Rima Marrouch