Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and discussed Moscow’s efforts to help the Middle Eastern country’s economic revival, as well as trade and economic cooperation “particularly in the fields of energy, industry and increasing trade,” according to Russian sources.
Assad and the Russian envoy also discussed mechanisms to overcome obstacles including those from the sanctions which “countries against the Syrian people imposed on Syria.”
“We have made considerable progress on that matter and hope that a contract will be signed within a week and the port of Tartus will be used by Russian businesses for 49 years," Borisov was quoted by Russia’s TASS news agency.
In December 2017, Russia’s Federation Council ratified an agreement between Moscow and Assad’s government on Russian forces' access to the naval base in Tartus.
A few days ago, Syrian state media reported a shortage in fuel which caused the rationing of available quantities, pointing out that this was due to the difficulties in importing fuel and the halting of credit line from Iran.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem said in a statement on Saturday carried by state-owned Syrian news agency (SANA) that "Syria is always coordinating with Iran".
On the other hand, news of leasing Tartus port caused widespread discontent among Syrians, who have been witnessing unprecedented economic distress for the past two weeks.
Syrian port workers are worried about the future of their work and the consequences of Russia's control over the port.
In 2017, Moscow and Damascus signed an agreement on the deployment of a Russian navy logistics support center in Tartus for the term of 49 years.
Russia and Iran are competing for influence in Syria. Moscow’s intention to lease Tartus port comes after Iran leased from the Syrian regime its commercial port of Latakia in October 2018.
During an unannounced visit to Tehran in February, Assad signed with his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Rouhani, an agreement allowing Iran to manage the commercial port of Latakia, which angered the Russian side.
Russia is looking to explore oil fields in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, and establish a land bridge to Europe across the Middle East to strengthen its role as a major supplier of gas to Europe.
Moscow is also interested in Lebanon, especially that, over the past two years, trade exchange has doubled between the two countries. It is also eyeing the oil storage facility at Tripoli port, 30 kilometers from the Syrian border and 60 kilometers from the Syrian port of Tartus.
Sources in Damascus said that leasing Tartus port to Russia is a clear indication of the shared influence and control, especially that there are Iranian-Russian interests in using the Syrian territory to extend gas pipelines in the region and resume the railway project linking Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
Various media outlets reported Iranian and Russian forces are clashing in several areas, which SANA categorically denied saying no such thing occurred.
Soon after the news broke of leasing Tartus port, allies and opposition figures denounced the move, prompting social media activists affiliated with the regime to promote that the ports of Tartus and Latakia were operated by the Philippine’s International Container Terminal Services Inc up until 2011 when both ports were classified dangerous areas.
The pro-regime critics considered the lease a “tactical move by Syria” in the face of the economic war declared on it. They argued that this would restore activity to the quasi-paralyzed port as a result of the economic blockade, and will allow the import of food and oil to Syria.
Earlier, al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the Syrian government, disclosed in an article “Unprecedented Disclosure on Oil” that the serious shortage of fuel in Syria is due of Iran halting a credit line to Syria after US sanctions.
The newspaper pointed out that Syria daily needs 4.5 million liters of gasoline, 6 million liters, 7 thousand tons of fuel, and 12 hundred tons of gas, amounting to $200 million every month.
Meanwhile, Moscow has pushed for a political process involving talks on a new constitution and elections as a way to end the conflict, but Assad has played down the possibility that the Turkey-backed opposition or foreign countries might participate.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said late on Friday that Assad met Moscow’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin, and several Russian Defence Ministry officials.
They discussed the formation of a constitutional committee, which Syria’s opposition last year agreed to join under UN auspices during Sochi peace conference.
SANA said meetings had focused on the next round of talks in Kazakhstan involving Syria, its allies Russia and Iran, and the rebels’ backer Turkey.