DAMASCUS: Just a few weeks ago, economics student Firas Kiwani was planning to leave his home in the Syrian capital Damascus, convinced there was no future in his war-torn country.
But the launch last month of a Russian air campaign in support of the Syrian government has changed the 20-year-old’s mind.
“The situation now is much better, and I’ve put the idea of leaving on hold until I see what happens on the ground,” he tells AFP, sitting in a Damascus cafe with his friends.
Russia’s decision to begin air strikes on September 30 has been criticized by Syria’s opposition and its international backers.
They accuse Moscow of seeking to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime rather than target jihadists, and of killing civilians in strikes on rebel-held areas.
But for many in Damascus and other government-held parts of Syria, the intervention is a welcome relief.
“I used to feel afraid and frustrated, and I planned with my friends to leave,” Kiwani says.
“But with the start of the Russian strikes, the Syrian army has begun to advance again, and that’s a good thing.”
Kiwani’s renewed optimism is shared by many in government-held Damascus, who express relief at Moscow’s decision to intervene after more than four years of conflict.
Before the intervention, Syria’s army had suffered a series of reversals, with even Assad acknowledging the “fatigue” of his troops.
Many feel Moscow has now shifted the momentum, and in the cafes, squares, and parks of Damascus, men, young and old, discuss the war and details of the newest Russian warplanes.
The ‘Sukhoi storm’
Khaled Labwani, 48, refers to the Russian intervention as the “Sukhoi storm,” after the Sukhoi fighter jets employed by the Russian army.
He spends his days playing cards with his friends in a cafe near the parliament building in central Damascus, after losing his job, as well as his home, in the city of Arbin.
Arbin lies on the outskirts of Damascus in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region, a frequent target of government air strikes as well as a source of opposition fire on the capital.
Labwani is happy to see Moscow intervene on the government’s side in the conflict, which began with anti-regime demonstrations in March 2011.
“It strengthens the power of the state against the militants,” he says, taking a puff on a water pipe.
But unlike some, he does not care for the affectionate nickname “Abu Ali” that some pro-government Syrians have given Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
“I refuse to call Russian President Putin ‘Abu Ali’ like my friends, because Russia intervened for its own interests,” he says.
At another Damascus cafe, Mohamed Wassim al-Khalidi, in his 30s, credits Russia’s intervention with injecting new life into Syrian regime troops.
“The Russian intervention came at the right time, particularly as the Syrian army had gotten tired,” he says.
“There had been no major progress by the army before the Russian intervention,” he adds.
“But today we’re hearing on the news that the army is entering Daraya (southwest of Damascus), Homs and Aleppo.”
‘The Russian choice is best’
The intervention has renewed interest in the latest developments on the ground in daily news broadcasts and on the front pages of Syria’s newspapers.
And when residents of the capital hear a plane overhead, debate often begins over whether it is Russian or Syrian.
For all the enthusiasm, some residents expressed concern over why Russia might be intervening.
“A borrowed robe won’t keep you warm,” says lawyer Anas Judeh, quoting a Syrian proverb.
“Russia’s military cooperation is necessary today to bolster the Syrian state, but the problem will come if there is no political investment in the future, in which case we’ll just have other battles,” the 40-year-old says.
He says he sees Syria’s conflict as a proxy war for global powers.
“The real conflict is not over Syria, but for hegemony, it is essentially a conflict between America and Russia but it is playing out today on Syrian soil.”
Other Syrians say they are unconcerned by Russia’s potential ulterior motives.
At the Hamidiyeh market in central Damascus, 23-year-old Abdel Rahman, an economics student, mans his father’s household appliances store.
“It’s natural for any country to have strategic interests involved before it gives military support to another country,” he says at the central Damascus market.
“We’re not in the best position on the ground, and we don’t have many choices, but the Russian choice is the best one we have.”