Secondly, there are perhaps 30,000 Russians who are married to Syrian citizens and are resident in the country. This is a consequence of decades of close relations between Soviet Russia and Syria under the current president’s father. In Moscow’s calculation, their best chance for a peaceful existence is for Assad to secure a victory over his opponents as quickly as possible. If the opposition were to win power, the nationals of a country which had backed Assad to the hilt, over many years, would face an uncertain future.
Thirdly, Syria is home to between 50,000 and 100,000 Circassians who originally hail from Russian lands around the Black Sea and the Caucasus. The Syrian Circassians were relocated to modern-day Syria in the second half of the nineteenth century, as tsarist Russia expanded. They are one of a number of Syrian minorities who support the Assad government, and most reside in and around Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. Most of those in Homs and the villages surrounding it are now refugees. As members of a community regarded as pro-Assad, they fear the Sunni opposition; yet because they are not part of Assad’s Alawite core, some parts of the Syrian security services also regard them with suspicion.
The Circassian issue is also sensitive for Putin because it touches on one of his personal projects – the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The games will take place on land that was originally populated by Circassians, and diaspora groups – with the encouragement of the Georgian government – are hoping to use the Winter Olympics to draw attention towards the so-called ‘Circassian Genocide’. Helping the Syrian Circassians might win Moscow some points with the diaspora, but engagement would be risky too.
In light of all this, it is little wonder that Russia would prefer to see the Syrian opposition crushed and Assad continue to rule for many years to come. It has far more at stake than arms sales, a naval base and a desire to thumb its nose at the US.