Throughout the Syrian civil war, Moscow has refused to turn its back on one of its few remaining allies in the Middle East, despite the tensions this stubborn support for Damascus has caused with Turkey, some Arab states and the West.
The Syrian civil war has presented Moscow with two major challenges. First, the collapse of the Assad regime would likely result in a sharp decline of Russian influence in Damascus, as Syrian opposition leaders have warned that, if they come to power, they will punish Russia and other foreign governments that stood by President Bashar al-Assad. A change of government in Damascus would also likely reduce Syrian purchases of Russian arms and, more importantly, limit other economic and security ties with Moscow. This was already Moscow’s experience after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, where the new government sharply reduced economic ties with Russia.
Second, Russian analysts are worried that an Islamist victory in Syria, even more so than in distant Libya, could set off further sectarian violence in the heart of the Middle East. That, in turn, could encourage Islamist extremism in the North Caucasus and Central Asia. They also fear that even the more moderate Syrian rebels who are receiving military and other assistance from Persian Gulf countries would likely replace the secular Syrian government with a Sunni regime.