This observer first personally experienced the fast rising tide of "Syria loves Putin" sentiment in this country at Lebanon's Masnaa border crossing the other day. As I waited for my visa to be put in my passport and chatted about recent developments with three Syrian immigration officials, who have become valued friends and invited me for tea in the commanders office.
Colonel "X" jokingly explained that he had bad news for me as an American. As I was thinking to myself, "Now what for Christ's sake!" he reported that the price of an American visa for Syria -if Americans can even get one these days- may be going up in price from the current outrageous $160 to and hard to imagine $200 per entry! My friends taunted me and howled with laughter as I complained and I started asking 'why you people target us Americans and how about it, what do others pay to enter Syria?'
In short, Russians are charged $14 for a visa, Chinese $ 15, Saudi Arabians $ 75 Japanese $ 24 and for some reason Turks don't pay anything. The visa fee may change re Turkey I was told, but so far their citizens benefit from a penumbra of the unique humanitarian policy of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) (the only Arab country with this policy) which since the Baathist revolution and until the current conflict did not even require a visa for any Arab coming here. How times have changed fast in this region.
"But the Turkish government is your enemy! Why do they come in free and they aren't even Arabs?" I protested to more guffaws. And then there is the case of the Iranians, what do they pay I demanded to know. The reply from my hosts: "For sure, Iranians would pay nothing if they came here but we never see them? Do you Sayed Lamb?" More hysterical laughter. One immigration employee commented "Now we do see some friends of Iran enter from Lebanon occasionally in racing convoys of black SUV with blackened windows but they don't stop in for passport stamps. They simply honk and wave at the checkpoints as they speed along their way."
I know life is not always fair.
The conversation returned to Russia's new 'vitality' in Syria. "All Syrians love Putin. He is known to us as 'Abu Ali Putin'" And as my friends effusively recited praise for Valdmir Putin, I couldt get a word in sideways, but I was reminded of Elizabeth Barrett Bowning's poem, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."
Without serious question, Syria and this region are witnessing the most significant shift in great-power relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For many reasons Russia has deployed its forces far from home to quell a revolution, entrench its military, showcase its new weapons and support a friendly regime. The evidence here in Damascus is that they are deadly serious and mean to challenge US influence in this region and, along with their Iranian "partners", have no plans to leave anytime soon.