The truth about 60,000 Russian troops in Syria

A Russian military plane at Qamishli Airport in northeastern Syria - 27 May 2022 (Hawar Heboo/Twitter)

A Russian military plane at Qamishli Airport in northeastern Syria - 27 May 2022 (Hawar Heboo/Twitter)

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Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

Speculation has swept over the past few weeks about the number of Russian forces present in Syria, in light of reports that Russia has reduced the number of its forces, according to what was reported by Russian media that do not reflect the official vision in Moscow.

The Moscow Times on 7 May said Russia had begun the process of withdrawing its military forces from Syria and is concentrating them at three airports before being transferred to the Ukrainian front.

The abandoned airbases of the Russian Federation are transferred to the Iranian military-political formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Lebanese Hezbollah, the news site added.

The exact number of the Syrian group of Russia is currently unknown. According to the Ministry of Defense, in 2015-18, 63,000 military personnel were stationed in the country, of which almost half were officers, according to The Moscow Times.

In view of the course of the Russian war on Ukraine, which has crossed its 100th day, the Russian military operations have reduced ambitions to reach Kyiv, and this appeared through the return of diplomatic delegations and offices of some countries to resume their activities in the Ukrainian capital, and Moscow admitted through the Ministry of Defense the killing of 1,351 Russian soldiers in Ukraine in its latest statistics issued on 25 March.

The losses declared by Russia contradict what was published by the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which publishes pro-Kremlin news reports and reported during the same period that 9,861 Russian soldiers were killed and 16,153 others were wounded.

Looking at the previous two figures and other figures issued by British Intelligence that increased the number by a few thousand, to reach half of what the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is talking about on Russian casualties. These figures do not reflect an urgent need to bring in additional forces for the slow battle in Ukraine, especially with a Russian mobilization of up to 190,000 soldiers, according to what the BBC reported on 19 March.

How many?

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Raed Jabr, an expert on Russian affairs, questioned the accuracy of the figures that speak of the presence of 63,000 Russian soldiers in Syria, considering that the number is inaccurate and exaggerated, given that Moscow is concealing the numbers, movements, and losses of its military forces, in line with Russian military doctrine.

Jabr explained that the absence of civil society and a free press in Russia hinders the possibility of reaching accurate numbers at the military level. He also indicated that the mentioned number (60,000) or any numbers that can be put forward are not limited to the Russian army forces fighting in Syria only. There are other groups, including the military forces located at the Hmeimim base, as a large part of these forces have non-combat missions, and their presence is linked to monitoring and follow-up operations in the Mediterranean.

There are naval and ground forces in Tartus, part of which performs other non-combat missions, in addition to the presence of the military police, which conduct patrols in different areas and whose efforts are different in Syria, despite the possibility of engaging in battles. There are also large numbers of experts and consultants in Syria to ensure communication and planning with The leadership of the Syrian regime in different regions.

On 26 May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that his country’s forces had almost no combat missions left in Syria, pointing out that their number “on the ground” is determined by specific tasks and on the basis of “the principle of interest,” according to what was stated during an interview with the Russian Arabic-speaking channel RT.

The expert in Russian affairs believes that even the forces present today in Syria within their barracks are not fully used, and the reduction does not conflict with the Russian forces strengthening some of their points in Syria, and they are part of the active forces in Syria whose combat missions will not be dispensed with, without any reduction in the future.

Reinforcements after a previous retreat

Last May witnessed a Russian military deployment in northeastern Syria, in contrast to the frequent reports last April about the Russian forces handing over military depots east of Homs in the desert area of ​​Mahin, in the interest of strengthening the Iranian military presence, through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards portal, in the same warehouses, after a complete withdrawal of the Russian forces and the Fifth Corps loyal to them towards the Palmyra military airport, according to the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

On 27 May, the pro-Kremlin Sputnik news agency reported that Russian forces arrived at Qamishli International Airport, which houses one of the most important Russian military bases, in conjunction with Turkish statements threatening a new military operation against the Kurdish factions in northern Syria.

The reinforcements included military equipment, in addition to six helicopters and two warplanes.

Activists and journalists, in addition to military observatories operating in the northern Syrian regions, documented the arrival of reinforcements to the airport, which included Russian Su-34 fighters and Ka-52 attack helicopters.

The reinforcements that arrived in late May were preceded by other reinforcements in the first half of the same month, when the Russian forces brought military groups from the Russian-backed Fifth Corps to their areas of influence east of the Euphrates after unknown aircraft targeted Iranian military sites in the town of Hawija Katea, north of Deir Ezzor.

The local Deir Ezzor 24 news site said that five military vehicles, including 23 mm anti-aircraft heavy machine guns, arrived in the east of the Euphrates on 9 May, passing the bridge located in the Marat village towards regime-controlled areas, where pro-Russian militias are stationed.

The reinforcements coincided with the arrival of Russian generals to the Russian Reconciliation Center, in addition to logistical reinforcements and military equipment that arrived in the same area, according to the Deri Ezzor 24 network.

The Russian forces present in the city of Aleppo, last March, have already reduced the number of their members of the Russian Military Police in the city of Aleppo, which is stationed on the outskirts of the neighborhoods of Hamdaniya and New Aleppo, and in the vicinity of the al-Ramouseh area, in addition to the Jamiliya and Mashhad districts.

On 3 March, local networks circulated a video that showed Russian armored vehicles and military vehicles in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, bearing the same Russian military slogan on the contact lines with the Turkish-backed opposition areas.

Proof of military air presence

The Russian reinforcements that arrived in northeastern Syria quickly proved their presence in the region, especially in the context of the aerial use of helicopters near the border with Turkey.

The Northeastern Syria network affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reported on Facebook that two Russian war helicopters flew, on the morning of 31 May, over the border city of Amuda, coming from Qamishli Airport.

The two planes also flew at a low altitude over the border city of al-Darbasiyah with Turkey, north of the city of al-Hasakah, before heading to the western countryside and then to the village of Abu Rasin.

In addition, the Kurdish Hawar Agency, which is close to the SDF, confirmed that Russian warplanes carried out patrol flights at dawn on the same day, at low altitudes in the sky of the northern countryside of Aleppo and the lines of contact between the US-backed SDF and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).

One day before that, Russian helicopters had flown intensively since the early morning hours, on 30 May, in the areas under the influence of the Syrian opposition in northwestern Syria.

Six Ka-52 helicopters belonging to the Russian forces flew northeast of the city of Aleppo on the contact lines with the SNA.

No 60,000 troops in Syria

In an interview with Enab Baladi, the Syrian military analyst Tariq Haj Bakri questioned the accuracy of the figures that talk about the presence of 60,000 Russian soldiers in Syria, considering that the number is exaggerated and is three times what it is in reality.

Major Haj Bakri explained that there have been Russian experts in the military sector with the regime since the seventies of the last century, but no more than a few thousand soldiers are deployed on various military units.

The military expert considered that the forces in Syria are not actually cut off from the Russian army, but there are experts and officers, and perhaps a few thousands, who are supervising the organization of combat work, communications, and giving orders.

He also pointed out that there are forces and militias affiliated with the Russian government unofficially, but with all that, the presented numbers remain unreal from the point of view of Haj Bakri.

There is Russia’s desire to surround the numbers related to the size of its military presence in Syria with a hazy aura to deceive the Syrian people that there is a full Russian army present in Syria, capable of always turning the scales, the expert says.

The inflating of the numbers of the Russian forces in Syria is not aimed at the Syrians alone, as it is also directed at the Western powers that have an active presence and influence in the region, especially the United States, while the major forces of Russia are the forces it supports in Syria such as the Fifth Corps and forces it may not support directly in order to say that Russia is a big country with huge bases in Syria, Haj Bakri concluded.

 

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