MOSCOW — The Russian Defense Ministry has ordered thousands of medals to honor soldiers who have taken part in military operations in Syria as Russian Special Forces and aircraft remain heavily engaged in fighting alongside troops loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Up to 2.3 million rubles ($320,000) will be spent on 10,500 medals for “participants in the military operation in Syria,” according to a tender published on an official website for state contracts Monday.
The Defense Ministry commissioned the medals in November, two months after the start of Russia’s Syrian air campaign, according to the RBC news website.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a Russian military drawdown in Syria earlier this month, support from the Russian armed forces played a key role in the re-capture by the Syrian army of the strategically important city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group over the weekend.
The Kremlin has never released precise figures for the number of troops it deployed in Syria but has repeatedly denied it will launch a ground operation. Russia has two major military bases in Syria — a naval facility at the port of Tartus and the Hmeimim airfield in the Western region of Latakia.
At the beginning of the Russian air campaign in September in support of Damascus, estimates put the number of troops deployed at the airfield at about 2,000. At its peak, there were about 50 jets and helicopters at Hmeimim, which was also reportedly defended by tanks and missile defense systems.
The deaths of seven Russian servicemen in Syria have been officially acknowledged since the Sept. 30 start of bombing.
Putin announced earlier this month that Russia was pulling out the majority of its armed forces from Syria — but stressed a scaled-down military presence will continue to offer assistance to the Syrian army and said the Russian presence could be rapidly increased if necessary.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Sunday that its planes had flown more than 40 sorties in 24 hours around the city of Palmyra and Russian state television showed footage of Russian attack helicopters apparently firing on Islamic State positions. Last week, Russian officials confirmed a Special Forces soldier died in fighting near Palmyra.
The Zvezda television station, which is owned by the Defense Ministry, broadcast footage Tuesday of de-mining equipment and sappers being dispatched by plane to Syria. Putin promised military assistance to help make the ancient city of Palmyra safe from mines in a telephone call Sunday with the head of Unesco.
Last week, the most senior Russian general in Syria, Alexander Dvornikov, said in an interview that Russian Special Forces were deployed in combat roles — the first official admission that Russian troops were fighting on the ground. He also said that Russian military advisors were embedded with Syrian units.
The head of the Russian North Caucasus Republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, said in February that groups of Chechen Special Forces had infiltrated the Islamic State group.