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In Damascus, Syrians celebrate Putin as their hero. Will they miss him?

An image of Syrian president Bashar Assad hangs in a business in old city of Damascus.

LORENZO TUGNOLI/THE WASHINGTON POST

By LOVEDAY MORRIS | The Washington Post | Published: March 16, 2016

DAMASCUS, Syria — Since Moscow lent its air power to the Syrian government's war, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has achieved cult status in Damascus.

His face has joined images of President Bashar Assad on necklaces, mugs and key- rings sold in souvenir shops in the capital. "Together against Terrorism" read posters at checkpoints showing the two men. Army generals affectionately referred to him as "Abu Ali Putin," while some Syrian schools have started offering Russian language classes.

With Moscow's intervention so publicly lauded, its decision to draw down its military presence this week on the fifth anniversary of the conflict's start brought an inevitable ripple of uncertainty to Damascus - coming just as Assad had appeared to be in a position of renewed military confidence.

Six months of Russian airstrikes helped Assad stem, and then reverse, losses on the battlefield, with his forces regaining 4,000 square miles of territory. By beginning a pullout, Moscow appears to be pressing for a political deal as a new round of peace talks begin in Geneva while maintaining a cease-fire that has brought some respite from violence.

If the announcement came as a surprise to Syria, the government was at pains not to show it. As Russia began packing up and flying jets and equipment home from an air base in Latakia province, officials appeared on state television to play down the significance of the pullout, stressing that it had been coordinated with the Syrian government.

Bassam Abu Abdullah, a professor in international relations at Damascus University, said it is natural that the two countries may have different strategic visions about how the conflict should be brought to an end.

"This shows Russia is really pushing the diplomatic channel rather than the military," he said. "Allies have differences - it's normal. Between the United States and Israel there are differences, but they are still allies."

He described the pullout as a positive step toward negotiations and a signal to the opposition, which has complained that the Russian military presence obstructs dialogue.

But the move also removes some of Assad's military heft just before his representatives sit at the negotiating table in Geneva.

Still, over the past five years, Assad has proved himself a perpetual survivor.

The street demonstrations against his government morphed into a proxy war drawing in the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. More than 250,000 people have died, half the population has been displaced, and cities and towns have been reduced to rubble.

"This is a third world war," Abu Abdullah said. "It may be a small one, but it's not easy to solve."

The anniversary of the initial uprising, not recognized by the government, passed without occasion this week in the Syrian capital. Among the stalls of the capital's Hamidiyeh souk, where protesters once chanted for freedom, it was business as usual.

"We don't discuss this ever," said one shopkeeper when asked about those early days of protest. He did not want his name published while talking about politics. "The walls have ears," he said. Government minders also accompany foreign journalists in Damascus.

But while the initial aims of those protests may be as distant as ever, a nearly three-week-old cease-fire has given residents in neighborhoods on the edge of the front lines in Damascus a glimpse of peace. Russia has said it will keep a presence at its air base in Syria to continue to monitor cease-fire violations, and its S-400 surface-to-air missile systems are also expected to remain.

Just a month ago, Elias Dawoud, 40, would visit his church near the front lines in the rebel-held Jobar area two hours before the service in hope that he would avoid the mortar fire. He would worry about his children making their way to school.

Now, at sunset, the sound of cabaret singers drifts through the tiny alleyways of the Damascus neighborhood of Bab Touma near his home, where the streets are jammed with traffic once more.

"Before it had got safer, but it was not normal enough for my family to go to church," he said. "But now it's more normal, and the number of people in church has tripled."

The sound of shelling into the rebel-held suburbs, though still occasionally heard on the evening air, has largely subsided.

But it remains unclear how much air cover Moscow will continue to provide to the Syrian army and the plethora of forces from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon fighting alongside it.

At the golden-domed Shiite shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab on the outskirts of Damascus, Shiite militiamen from Iraq milled through stalls buying gifts before traveling home after their two-month rotation. Mohammed Saleh Ibrahim, a 40-year-old fighter with the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shiite militia, said he had just come from the front lines in Aleppo, where pro-government forces have advanced under the cover of Russian air power. He sees the fight as a religious duty, he said.

Last month, four car bombs killed hundreds of people near the shrine, demolishing one building and ripping the facade off another in a reminder to residents that Islamic State fighters are still not far away. The group, along with the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, is not included in the cease-fire agreement, which means Russia, Syria and the United States can continue bombing militant targets.

"You never feel fully at rest here," said Umm Mustafa, 44. She was cleaning her third-floor apartment, despite it now being open to the elements, its entire front wall torn away.

In recent weeks, Syrian forces have advanced toward Palmyra - Islamic State militants remain in control of the city and its majestic ruins - and farther north in the vicinity of the group's de facto capital of Raqqa. Russian officials have said they will not ease their fight against terroriosts but they do not need their current military presence to continue.

"The Kremlin has carried out its duties," said Bassam Barakat, a political analyst close to the Syrian government. "It has allowed the Syrian army to take the initiative on the ground."

In the al-Zahira neighborhood in southern Damascus, Hassan al-Burni, who heads the local National Defense Force militias that rallied to the assistance of the government, said the Russian airstrikes had been helpful, because of the Russians' better technology, but not decisive.

"Winning depends on the boots on the ground," said the burly commander, a gold chain around his neck and watch bearing the face of Assad on his wrist. "And we have them."

His neighborhood lies just north of Yarmouk, one of the besieged areas that the cease-fire was meant to open up to aid deliveries, but distributions have been slow, with the government accused of holding them up.

"The rations will be looted by the terrorists who will sell them to the people at high prices," Burni said. Still, with the cease-fire in place, some are daring to envisage a life after the conflict.

"They see a flicker of hope," he said. "No war can last forever."

Images of president Bashar Assad dominate a fence in central Damascus.
LORENZO TUGNOLI/THE WASHINGTON POST

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