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Osama Bin Laden said, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they will naturally want to side with the strong horse.” Understanding that fact of human nature and geopolitics, Vladimir Putin galloped into Syria to show the Middle East that Russia rides high while the US flees from the world stage.
While President Obama busies himself making silly faces toward a selfie stick, many beleaguered residents of Syria and Iraq are more than happy to welcome a new sheriff to town.
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.
Most people who have watched chaos reign for years will welcome even a bloody ruler if he enforces some semblance of order. And, for all his myriad faults, Putin’s investment of blood and treasure in the region has given hope to residents. One Damascene marveled that “Putin does more than just speak.”
A professor from Homs agreed. “The (Russian) intervention has raised the morale of the Syrian army and the Syrian people alike,” said Dr. Samir Haddad. “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.”
Iraqis are joining in the praise for Moscow, embittered from years of war followed by sudden US abandonment:
“Russia does not play games. They are problem solvers, and they do it quietly and efficiently, not like the Americans who prefer to do everything in front of the cameras,” said Hussein Karim, a 21-year-old medical student from Baghdad.
In one cartoon widely distributed among Iraqis on Facebook and Twitter, U.S. President Barack Obama is dressed as a Sunni sheikh, while Putin as a Shiite imam, suggesting the two are taking sides.
Another cartoon shows a bare-chested Putin holding IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by the collar of his jalabaya, looking very intimidating. He says to al-Baghdadi: “Where do you think you’re going? I’ll flatten you like flour,” a popular Iraqi expression.
Al-Baghdadi, holding a cellphone, shouts: “Obama, save me!”
The New York Times also noticed Putin’s growing fan club in Iraq.
At a seminar of journalists and civic leaders last week, Faris Hammam, the leader of the local writers union, asked how many attendees were glad the Russian military was carrying out airstrikes in Syria. Most shot up their hands.
“The Russian intervention is welcomed, not because they like intervention but because of the American failure,” Hammam said.
“In the Middle East, what often counts is strength — or at least the illusion of it,” said Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based international-affairs research group.
Under Obama’s feckless foreign policy, America has revealed herself as a nation not to be trusted. The President repeatedly promised that he would take the fight to ISIS and help protect the Yazidis, Kurds, and other oppressed peoples suffering under their boots and blades. But after more than a year of talk and dithering, the people of the Middle East have come to a different conclusion: Obama lied.
In a region of centuries-long memories and grievances, America’s betrayal will not be forgotten.