Amid the ornate walls of Damascus’ famed Omayyad Mosque, preacher Maamoun Rahmeh stood before worshippers last week, declaring Russian President Vladimir Putin a “giant and beloved leader” who has “destroyed the myth of the self-aggrandizing America.”
Posters of Putin are popping up on cars and billboards elsewhere in parts of Syria and Iraq, praising the Russian military intervention in Syria as one that will redress the balance of power in the region.
The Russian leader is winning accolades from many in Iraq and Syria, who see Russian airstrikes in Syria as a turning point after more than a year of largely ineffectual efforts by the U.S.-led coalition to dislodge the Islamic State militants who have occupied significant parts of the two countries.
The reactions underscore that while the West may criticize Putin for supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad, there is some relief in the region at the emergence of a player with a coherent — if controversial — strategy.
“Putin does more than just speak,” said Sohban Elewi of Damascus, summing up the views of Syrians on opposing camps who regard U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq as fumbled and confused.
Russia began its air campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, joining the fray of those bombing Syria at a critical time for Assad and his embattled troops. The Syrian army’s loss of the northern province of Idlib opened the way for rebels to come dangerously close to the coastal Alawite heartland, leaving his soldiers there vulnerable and dejected.
Russia insists it is targeting the Islamic State group and other “terrorists.” But Syrian rebels and opposition activists say Moscow’s warplanes in recent days have focused on Idlib and the central province of Hama, hitting U.S.-backed rebels in areas with no ISIS militants.
The planes also have provided air cover for Syrian ground troops who launched an offensive in central Syria, reinforcing the belief that Russia’s main aim is to shore up Assad’s forces.
Among Assad’s war-weary and frustrated supporters, such elaborate displays of support provide a much-needed psychological boost, and have injected new hope that their flailing battle against rebel factions and the Islamic State group can still be won.
“The (Russian) intervention has raised the morale of the Syrian army and the Syrian people alike,” said Dr. Samir Haddad from the central city of Homs.
“President Putin has a distinguished personality and charisma, and it has become clear that world leaders have gradually started approving, openly or secretly, of this intervention,” he said.