| MOSCOW, Sept 22
MOSCOW, Sept 22 Data showing how many Russian
citizens in Syria took part in a weekend election for a new
Russian parliament suggests the Kremlin may have around 4,000
military personnel based there backing Syrian President Bashar
The Russian Defence Ministry has declined to divulge the
size of its contingent in Syria, which is largely deployed at
the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, but also based at a
naval facility, in Damascus and in other locations in
government-controlled territory helping Assad fight rebels.
But figures from Russia's Central Election Commission
published on its site after parliamentary elections on Sunday,
which were won by the ruling United Russia party, offer a clue.
They show that 4,378 Russian citizens cast their votes using
mobile ballot boxes outside Damascus, the Syrian capital, where
just 193 Russians voted. The data did not break down whether the
voters were civilians or military personnel, but many Russian
civilians who lived in Syria before its civil war have fled.
In the last Russian parliamentary election, in 2011, the RIA
Novosti news agency reported that only 35 Russian military
personnel, then based at the Tartous naval facility, had voted.
The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of
Russia-based investigative bloggers who specialise in analysing
the Russian military, said the election commission data "offered
a rare glimpse of the actual size of Russian force in Syria.
"(The figure of 4,378) should reflect Russian numbers in
Syria pretty closely, as turnouts at Russian military base
polling stations tend to be 100 percent," a CIT note said.
Russia launched air strikes in Syria on Sept. 30 last year,
a move that altered the course of the conflict in Assad's
favour. President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial withdrawal in
March, though experts said that what followed resembled a
reconfiguration of forces rather than a meaningful drawdown.
Russian state TV broadcast footage of military personnel
voting at the Hmeymim air base on Sept. 18. The RBK news portal
cited Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov as saying at the
time that all military personnel had taken part in the vote.
Russian diplomats say that around 700 Russian citizens
living in Syria used to take part in Russian parliamentary
elections in peace time. Many of those voters, some of whom used
to work in Syria's energy sector, have since left.
Central Election Commission data showed a total of 5,360
Russian citizens in Syria were registered to vote this year, and
that 62.7 percent of the 4,417 valid Russian voting slips had
plumped for Putin's United Russia.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)