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Russia will be big loser if Assad falls, analysts say

Fighting continued for a fifth day near key government installations, indicating that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control is faltering. As the opposition advances, Russia and China still refuse to support a resolution calling for tougher sanctions. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

If Bashar Assad is dislodged from power in Syria, as seems increasingly likely, Russia stands to be the biggest loser in both international prestige and lost arms sales, U.S. analysts tell NBC News.

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 “They are scrambling to hold on to the few allies they have,” Charles  Kupchan, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “No Man’s World,” a book about a world order unanchored by superpowers, said of the Russians. “They’re in an extremely awkward position  --  supporting a regime that is considered beyond the pale by most of the world  -- and as a consequence are selling arms and vetoing  resolutions that are needed steps to stop the killing.”

On Thursday, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution threatening  sanctions against the Assad regime. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice called the actions, “dangerous and deplorable,” and argued  on the “Andrea Mitchell Report” on MSNBC that it runs against their “long-term interests.”

Diplomats across the globe voiced their frustrations at the United Nations this morning over the decision by Russia and China to veto a resolution that would have imposed new sanctions on Syria. Amb. Susan Rice discusses.

Indeed,  those who have meet with members of the Syrian rebel army say no nation, not even Iran, Assad’s closest ally in the region, is as reviled as Russia, which has supplied the regime with many of the armaments used to attack the rebels and shell villages.

Kupchan says that Russia doesn’t seem to care because it’s dealing with what it considers larger issues of geopolitics.  “What’s driving  Russia’s position is Moscow’s deep discomfort at what happened in Libya and (its determination) that it not again sanction civilian protection as pretext for regime change,” he said.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who according to diplomatic officials felt personally betrayed by U.S. President Barack Obama after agreeing to U.N. resolutions permitting the use of force to protect Libyan civilians, only to see it used to overthrow their long-time ally, Moammar Gadhafi.

“Their second motivation, more explicit , is  to salvage influence. To put it mildly, their influence has waned in the Middle East and Central Asia ," added Kupchan. “So, they’re scrambling to hold on to the few allies they have.”

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William Hartung, an arms analyst for the Center for International Policy, says there may be another, more commercial reason for Russia’s support: Syria is one of Moscow’s biggest arms customers in the Middle East, and while purchases by other regional buyers  have declined , Damascus’ appetite for first Soviet and then Russian weaponry has never wavered.

“Syria is among a handful of big buyers left for Russia,” said Hartung, who notes that former customers like Saddam Hussein and Gadhafi have left the world stage. The U.S. and Europe also are making inroads with Russia’s biggest client, India, while China is manufacturing more of its own armaments. “How do you replace China, India, Iraq, Libya and now Syria?” Hartung asks.

In fact, Syrian arms purchases  from Russia have dramatically increased over the past several years, according to documentation  from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute  (SIPRI) and interviews with arms experts.

Ho / AFP - Getty Images

A July 2012 handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) , shows Syrian military attack helicopters firing missiles during army maneuvers at an undisclosed location in Syria.

“Most of Russian exports to Syria over the 2001-2011 period were in the past three years,” said Hartung. “The data shows $187 million (in sales) in 2009;  $294 million in 2010; and $246 million in 2011.”  Over the past decade, Russia transferred weapons worth $857 million to Syria, about 70 percent of the total weapons Syria received in that period.  Other suppliers were Belarus ($196 million), Iran ($109 million), and North Korea ($40 million).

Major weapons sent by Russia to Assad’s government, according to SIPRI, included 2,000 anti-tank missiles, including 200 Igla-SA-18 "Grouse" models, which have been fired from vehicles, helicopters and  ships against rebel fighters; 868  surface-to-air missiles; 24 MiG fighter planes with 300 air-to-air missiles; 36 trainer/combat aircraft; as well as helicopters and artillery. Those numbers do not count the small arms the Syrian military and security forces receive from Russia.

Politically, it’s a symbiotic relationship, Hartung said of the Syrian purchases. “Some of this is about cementing  relationships,  hoping the Russians will bail them out in a pinch.”

There have been conflicting reports on Russia’s willingness to continue sales.  In early July, the deputy director of a body that supervises the country's arms trade was quoted as saying, Russia  would suspend arms sales to Syria.

“While the situation in Syria is unstable, there will be no new deliveries of arms there," Vyacheslav Dzirkaln told journalists at the Farnborough Airshow in Britain, Russia's Interfax news agency reported. But no one else in the Russian government would confirm the deputy minister’s comments, leaving open the possibility that Russia will continue to resupply Assad’s military and security forces.

'Strengthening Putin's hand'
Kupchan said continuing the arms sales might benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin.

 “I do think that in the big scheme of things, the sale of arms is a drop in the bucket financially,” he said. “It matters more in domestic politics, within the decision-making process. Arms merchants and generals are weighing in. It’s not a decisive role but it helps Putin to have them in his camp.

“It’s all about strengthening Putin's hand by standing up to the West.”

But Hartung said that no matter what the end game in Syria, Russia will come out a loser. Either the client state will be in the hands of the anti-Russian rebels or remain in chaos for months, or even years.

 Still, Kupchan said, Russia may still play a positive role in ushering in the post-Assad era.

“It’s conceivable the Russians play a role in the end game,” he said. “They cannot be exceedingly pleased the way this is gone.  I can see the Russians facilitating Assad’s departure.  I just don’t see him winding up in a dacha or gated community outside Moscow.  Probably, more like somewhere in the Arab world or Africa.”

Wherever he goes, Russia’s influence in Syria is likely to go with him.

Robert Windrem is a senior investigative producer for NBC News.