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Putin's Holy War: Syrians Outraged At Russia Intervention

Moscow's decision to enter the Syrian conflict with bombing raids may bring smiles to the Assad regime. On the ground, ordinary Syrians are paying the price.

Syrians in Aleppo after airstrikes on Sept. 20
Syrians in Aleppo after airstrikes on Sept. 20
Omar Abdallah

TALBISEH — It didn't take long for Russian interference in Syria, where the country's air force is carrying out airstrikes against ISIS targets, to trigger a strong backlash. Last week, on the very first day of the offensive, Russian airstrikes killed 17 civilians in Talbiseh, a town in the rural northwestern province of Homs, nearly 30 miles from areas controlled by ISIS militants. Russian warplanes also reportedly targeted Tajamu al-Ezzah, a U.S.-backed rebel group, in the northern rural areas of Hama province.

Talbiseh residents who spoke with Syria Deeply expressed anger over Moscow's attacks on the town, and over Russian President Vladimir Putin's aid to the beleaguered government of Bashar al-Assad. "Russia launched the attacks to protect Assad," says Abdul Latif, a 34-year-old father of three from Talbiseh, who works at an auto shop in town and volunteers in his spare time distributing food to the needy. "These are Putin's words, but he actually attacked civilians."

Another resident, Abdul Latif, is indignant. "He wants to protect Assad by killing civilians? We cannot tell who will kill us next. It was Assad, then Iran and Hezbollah, and now Russia. They are all killing innocent Syrians. How much did Assad pay Russia for this kind of protection?"

He wonders where the Friends of Syria Group is and why the United States, Europe and the Gulf are not helping more. "Where are they? Why don't they do something? They have sat and watched while we were slaughtered for five years now, but they have done nothing serious about it," Latif asserts. He says that in Talbiseh, people call President Barack Obama "the chicken" because he lacks the will or the courage to stand up to Russia.

Latif isn't alone in criticizing the Friends of Syria Group. Many Syrians are expressing anger and disappointment.

Lamya, a 22-year-old medical student at the University of Homs, believes Putin's military intervention in Syria's civil war is a clear attempt "to weaken the militant opposition on the ground, so that when negotiations start, Assad will be in a stronger position."

No advocates

"Our biggest problem," she argues, "is that we do not have a political entity that truly represents Syrians and cares for them. All the Syrian National Coalition does is condemn others. They've taken no actions and have no political weight. People are fed up with them. I won't call them traitors, like many Syrians do, but honestly, stupidity, irresponsibility and impotence are not much better than treason."

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Friends of Syria Group meeting meeting in Istanbul in April 2012 — Photo: U.S. DoD

Abu Abdul Ilah, a 41-year-old Algerian currently in Idlib fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), frames Russia's military intervention in a different light. "This is a war on Islam," says Abdul Ilah, who recently moved to Syria after years of fighting with al-Qaeda in Iraq. "Russia's animosity toward jihadists dates back to the days of Chechnya and Afghanistan," he adds, arguing that Russia is using the Syrian conflict as an expedient opportunity to take revenge.

"The Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin's military intervention in Syria and calls it a holy war," he continues. "Why is our jihad seen as terrorism, while when they fight in the name of religion, it's seen as "necessary?""

Ahmad, a 52-year-old doctor from Kensabba on the outskirts of the coastal city of Latakia, believes the global community should unite and fight both the Assad government and ISIS. "They're both terrorists," he says.

Ahmad says he finds it hard to understand the logic of Moscow's recent air raids, given that Putin's purported reason for getting involved in Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year, was to defeat ISIS. "We just received news that the Russians targeted the U.S.-backed First Coastal Division in the Jabal al-Turkman area in Latakia," he says. "This a group that fights against ISIS. If they had really hit ISIS, Syrians would have welcomed their raids — but instead, they targeted moderate opposition groups and civilians."

Syrians have lost trust in the world leaders, especially in the U.S. government's espoused slogans about human rights, democracy and justice for all. "For the past five years, the whole world has been watching the slaughter of Syrians every day, but nobody moved a strand of hair on their head," Ahmad says. "Our crime was that we dreamed of democracy and justice, but what we received instead were death, displacement and torture, while the developed world has done nothing. How can we trust them or believe their slogans?"

Some Europeans worry that the wave of Syrian refugees flooding Europe will change the continent's character, he notes. "We understand their concerns, but I believe that in order to stop this wave, Europe should help us get rid of the causes that forced Syrians to leave their country in the first place," he says. "Assad is every bit as responsible as ISIS for the displacement of Syrian people."

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