BURSA, Turkey (AP) — Mohammed Faris made history and achieved national hero status in 1987 when he became Syria's first man in space as part of a Soviet-led mission.
Now, as refugee in Turkey, the 64-year-old cosmonaut and retired general is critical of Russia's intervention in Syria, and wants European nations to help remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from office to bring about an end to the refugee crisis.
Faris fled the civil war Syria in 2012 for Turkey to join the Syrian opposition, becoming one of his country's highest-ranking defectors. As well as advising the Syrian opposition, he now gives talks at universities and schools on his experiences in space.
"I tell Europe if you don't want refugees, then you should help us get rid of this regime," he told The Associated Press in an interview during a visit to a science and technology center in the northwestern Turkish city of Bursa. He also met with the AP in his office in Istanbul's Aksaray district, which is also known as "Little Syria" because of the high number of refugees living there.
Faris said he feels admiration for the Russian people, but is critical of Moscow's campaign in Syria.
"I am very sorry about the Russian interference, which has stood on the side of dictator Bashar Assad, and has begun to kill the Syrian people with their planes," he said.
He insisted peace in Syria can't be achieved unless Assad leaves.
"We in Syria, sacrificed more than a million people and 1.9 million injured," Faris said. "Can we let this be for nothing?"
During the height of the Cold War, Faris was selected for a space program and moved to the former Soviet Union in 1985 for training with other cosmonauts.
Two years later, he would travel to the Mir space station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.
"I saw the earth from outer space. The earth is like one ball, it has no borders," Faris said. "And that's wonderful, because in outer space, there are no gates between countries. From there, the earth is one home, one family."
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara.