When 'Abu Hussein' was a compliment.

Photographer: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian Rebels Give Obama a Bad Name: 'Abu Hussein'

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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On a recent trip to the Middle East, I spent some time with Syrian opposition activists who are working to spread their anti-regime message into Syrian cities through the media. As we traded notes about the current U.S. policy on Syria, it struck me that they all had picked up the habit of referring to U.S. President Barack Obama as "Abu Hussein."

The nickname, the Syrians explained to me, has two meanings. Obama's middle name is Hussein, and it was his grandfather's first name. When Syrians first started calling him "Abu Hussein" in 2008, it was out of affection. ("Abu" technically means "father of" in Arab nomenclature, but is often used more loosely in nicknames.) The moniker grew out of hope that an American president with one Muslim parent might make progress in repairing U.S. relations with the Arab world. Obama himself had the same goal.

But since the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, those opposed to the Bashar al-Assad regime have resurrected the nickname with quite a different connotation. "Amongst the Syrian street, Obama is viewed as having capitulated to Iranian and Shia extremist interests in Syria," said Oubai Shahbandar, a former senior adviser to the Syrian National Coalition. "Hussein is a venerated saint amongst the Shia Iranians. Hence Abu Hussein." 

The Obama administration has done a lot to support the Syrian opposition over the last four years. Yet the Syrians I met with feel U.S. policy has fallen far short: It has failed to stop the Assad regime's murderous assault on Sunni population centers, allowed the dictator to avoid accountability for mass atrocities, left the opposition too weak to topple the regime, and focused too much on seeking accommodation with Russia and, now, Iran. They are also rankled by comments Obama has made belittling their revolution, such as when he said last year that the idea the rebels could succeed has "always been a fantasy."

Obama isn't the only foreign leader to get such a nickname. The opposition activists often referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as "Abu Ali," a reference to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Allawites, the sect that includes the Assad family, consider Ali to have been their first Imam. 

"Syrians are referring to both Obama and Putin with these pejoratives because both are perceived to have enabled Shia extremists in Syria -- Obama through his prevarication and Putin through his alliance with Iran," Shahbandar said.

Those grievances are unlikely to be assuaged by the multilateral negotiations the U.S. is now holding with Russia and Iran: no Syrian opposition representatives have been invited to the talks.

“I want to be clear: the Syrian people will be the validators of this whole effort,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday. “This is not about imposing anything on anyone.”

Yet the Syrians now fighting the regime are increasingly seeing the U.S. as the validator of those they are struggling against. Unless that changes, any negotiation between "Abu Hussein" and "Abu Ali" is unlikely to gain their support. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net