Russian forces have provided a significant boost for the Syrian army in recent months, but military analysts have been unable to answer a basic question: How many troops has the Kremlin sent to the country?
Now, just as the Russia appears to be ramping down its six-month involvement in Syria’s civil war, a figure is coming into view.
Radio Free Europe reports that the Defense Ministry is seeking 10,300 medals for “participants in the military operation in Syria.” The agency will spend about 2.3 million rubles, or $29,000, for the medals, according to an order published on an official procurement website. The ministry will pick a manufacturer through an electronic action on April 15.
The Ministry commissioned the medals in November, two months after the start of Russia’s Syrian air campaign that saw warplanes carry out hundreds of combat sorties against “terrorist” targets inside the country. Putin and other Kremlin officials contend the targets were ISIS forces, but Western officials argue they were aimed at Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.
A mock-up of the medal itself shows three fighter jets and a missile ship passing around an outline of Syria. The back of the piece is reportedly inscribed with the words: “To a participant in the military operation in Syria.”
As with its military operations inside and along the border with Ukraine, the Kremlin has never released exact figures for the number of troops it deployed inside Syria.
Putin announced earlier this month that Russia was withdrawing most of its armed forces from Syria, but emphasized a small contingent would remain to offer assistance to the country’s army.
He also said Russia’s footprint in the war-torn country could be expanded rapidly, if necessary. Indeed, the country retains two major military bases in the country, a naval site near the port of Tartus and an airfield near the town of Latakia.
This weekend the Defense Ministry said Russian planes flew over 40 sorties in 24 hours around the city of Palmyra to help the Syrian army retake the city from ISIS, a development that’s been given the thumbs-up by the Pentagon.
“We certainly welcome word of any loss of territory on the part of ISIL, and the ejection of -- of ISIL from parts of Syria we think are a good thing,” press secretary Peter Cook said Tuesday during a press briefing, using the other common acronym for the terror group.
He said that since fragile ceasefire between the regime and its opponents took effect late last month it is “clear that they have focused more of their military attention on ISIL. We think that is a good thing. We encouraged that from the start.”
Cook added that Russia’s role in Syria today “is more constructive than it’s been” though it’s unclear if Washington and Moscow – whose relationship has come under intense strain because of the Kremlin’s actions – will be teaming up any time soon.
“If the Russians continue to focus their efforts on ISIL we think that would be a good thing. But at this point, we're not at a position to cooperate with Russia in that effort,” he said.