A Russian firm is to take over Syria’s largest port for 49 years and invest $500 million in expanding it, the transport minister in Damascus said Thursday.
A deal would be signed for the “management, expansion and operation” of port of Tartus with Russian company Stroytransgaz, Transport Minister Ali Hammoud was quoted as telling pro-government newspaper Al-Watan.
“The length of the contract — 49 years — was decided after a feasibility study” so both sides could reap benefits, it said.
Russia has been a key ally of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria’s eight-year civil war, providing it with crucial military backing.
The minister on Tuesday told Syrian state television that the port, which started operating in the 1960s, was not deep enough to allow heavy ships to dock.
“Tartus is an old port whose docks range between four and 13 meters deep,” he said.
The current facilities are not suitable for ships heavier than 30-35 tons and “we needed to try to ensure very deep docks to accommodate cargoes of up to 100 tons.”
The expansion works are expected to increase the eastern Mediterranean port’s capacity from 4 million to 38 million tons a year, Hammoud said.
He told Al-Watan that the project would help lessen the burden of international sanctions against the Damascus regime since the start of the war in 2011.
On Saturday, Russian media quoted the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov as saying a deal for the port was in the works.
“We hope the deal will be signed within a week,” Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted him as saying after meeting Assad in Damascus.
Backed by Russian air power since 2015, Assad has made great military gains against rebels and jihadists, and the regime now holds up to 60 percent of the country.
Even during the war, Russian companies have invested in Syria’s oil, gas and mining sectors and won contracts to build flour mills and water-pumping stations.