By Jamie Crawford
A "symbolic" pioneer in Syria's scientific advancements can now be added to the list of departures and defections from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in recent days.
Mohammad Ahmad Faris, Syria's first man in space, crossed into Turkey this past weekend after meeting with commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army in the Syrian city of Aleppo, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported.
"I am ready to provide assistance to the Free Syrian Army," Anadolu quoted Faris as telling commanders of the umbrella group of rebel fighters. "We are with you all the way."
Faris's defection comes as the Syrian prime minister, Riyad Hijab fled, reportedly for Qatar; and Col. Yarab al-Shara, a senior Syrian intelligence officer, defected to Jordan.
The defections "indicate that the regime is crumbling and losing its grip on power as more and more senior military and civilian officials abandon the Assad regime," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters Monday. "We encourage others to join them in rejecting the horrific actions of the Assad regime and helping to chart a new path for Syria, one that is peaceful, democratic, inclusive and just."
Faris, who was still an active member of the Syrian air force, was part of a three-man crew of a 1987 Soviet space mission, and was Syria's first man in space, Anadolu reported.
"Symbolically, he apparently was an important member of Syrian civil society," a senior U.S. official said. "In terms of being obviously somebody of some prominence, obviously the Syrians were proud of him as someone who had gone into space."
Faris's apparent defection is "very symbolic," Aram Nerguizian with the Center for Strategic and International Studies told CNN. For Nerguizian, the symbolism is what is significant. Faris's ability to change the equation in the battles currently taking place in Syria is "marginal at best," he said.