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.
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.
In addition to the warplanes taking off from a base in Latakia, Russian ships in the Caspian Sea have fired cruise missiles that fly nearly 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) over Iran and Iraq to strike Raqqa and Aleppo provinces, in what many see as a show of force meant to portray muscle more than serve a specific military goal.
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.
In Iraq, where the U.S.-led war against IS has stalled, many say they want Russian airstrikes against IS to extend to their country.
Buried between paintings of Baghdad architecture, mosques and landscapes, some art shops in Baghdad have begun selling portraits of Putin, a tribute to his intervention in what Iraqis see as the new military front against IS.
The military intervention in Syria is viewed by many as a sign of shifting alliances in the region as Russia takes a greater role in the fight against IS.
The Russian Air Force has carried out 55 sorties in the last 24 hours, hitting 53 Islamic State targets in four Syrian provinces and destroying command posts, terrorist training camps and a transfer point, among others.
Sukhoi Su-24M and Su-34 bombers, together with Su-25SM ground support aircraft, bombed ISIS positions in the provinces of Idlib, Latakia, Homs and Hama, the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, told journalists.
The airstrikes destroyed seven command points, six training camps, six arms depots and a stronghold near the village of Salma in Latakia province.
Russian aircraft have also attacked 24 of the terrorists’ fortified strongpoints, along with weapons and vehicles stored there.
“Over the last day, Russian warplanes have also eliminated a convoy of terrorist vehicles, a mobile mortar gunnery team and three underground bunker systems," Konashenkov reported.
A Sukhoi Su-25 ground-support fighter jet, using reconnaissance data obtained by drones, bombed a mobile mortar battery in the Hama province, wiping out three SUVs with mortars mounted on them and a truck of munitions.
Also in Hama province, a Sukhoi Su-24M deployed a guided KAB-500 air bomb and destroyed an Islamic State fortified command post.
The convoy eliminated near the town of Sukeyk north of Hama consisted of three petrol tankers, a large truck and two SUVs with heavy machine guns mounted on them. All the vehicles have been destroyed.
A group of Sukhoi Su-24M bombers has hit a large transfer point of Islamic State terrorists in Latakia province, striking the target with high-explosive air bombs, which caused a fire at the installation equipped with underground facilities. The fire caused munitions stored at the facility to detonate.
There’s an increasing number of reports stating that after just a week of Russian airstrikes against ISIL (Islamic State) positions, there’s panic and desertion everywhere. About a thousand extremists have already abandoned their positions in Syria and are now heading in the direction of Iraq, Turkey and a number of European states. Successful operations carried out in cooperation with the regular Syrian army has not only managed to interrupt a series of relatively easy victories that ISIL had been scoring on the field of battle, but also stopped the flow of militants from abroad.
According to the Arabic television channel Al-Mayadeen, ISIL members are urgently evacuating their families, fearing new air raids. In a situation where command centers are getting obliterated, there’s desertion to be found everywhere. According to numerous experts, just the first few days of Russia’s campaign have caused the Islamic State more damage than a year of the so-called “war on terrorism” in Syria, launched by the United States, and then supported by the UK, France, Germany Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
The successful counterattack of the Syrian army, with Russian warplanes flying close air support, aggravated the already complicated relations between militants of this Islamist organization, causing morale to sink lower. It went as far as forcing ISIL to create a special “military police”, that is now entrusted with the duty of checking special papers that testify that a militant is carrying out his duties in a designated location.
Among the first ones out the door are those who joined ISIL for the possibility of rapid enrichment. They have finally realized that the promises they were given will never come true, therefore those “adventurous spirits” have no intent of becoming cannon fodder in an actual war, especially now, when purposely ineffective air strikes of the United States and its allies have been replaced by Russian bombs raining from the sky on Islamist military facilities and training camps.
Undoubtedly, financial problems that ISIL is experiencing now will affect the number of militants in both the Middle Eastern and North African regions, where the group was seeking ways to expand its sphere of influence. However, since the air raids have finally become effective in Syria due to Russia’s involvement, the remaining funds are not large enough to cover the pay of all regular militants in ISIL, which has already become the cause of the growing discontent within the group. Many foreigners are trying to contact the family or the authorities of the country of their origin for those to help them return home, which is destroying the myth of ISIL’s invincibility in public perception.
While contacting their relatives at home, militants are openly complaining that they do not have access to the western food and gadgets they have grown accustomed to, while being deprived of the newly found benefits of being an Islamist – higher wages, comfortable life, women slaves, to name a few. There’s shortages of electricity, food, drinking water and medical assistance. They feel that the better part of them will die in the near future if they are unable to leave ISIL. As for militants from Western countries, those who were convinced that they joined a real-life Indiana Jones adventure, their determination to seek adventure is now clearly exhausted.
For the reasons stated above a coordinated push against this terrorist group launched a coalition of different states can allow the world to get read of this threat to humanity, which had been nurtured by the West for years in hopes that it would be able to put it to good use toward its criminal plans.