(Damascus) The details of the recent landmark deal struck between Syria and Russia regarding the lease of the strategic Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous remain sketchy. President Bashar al-Assad met senior Russian officials for talks in Damascus on April 20, with both countries state media saying a deal was close to lease out the port on a BOT (Build, Operate, Treasfer) basis to Russian companies for 49 years. However the sketchiness of the released information regarding the deal does not negate its strategic significance and intertwined potential for political, economic and military ramifications.
The only confirmed details so far are that the Syrian workforce, some 6200 strong, will not be made redundant by the new Russian operators of the port who are expected to invest hundreds of millions of US dollars in capacity enlargement and modernization of the port.
Some of Syria’s staunchest adversaries in the region were kept on tentder hooks as president Assad met over two days with Moscow’s special envoy to Syria Aleksandr Lavrentiev, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov; and several Defense Ministry officials before the new deal over Tartous sea port was first leaked by the Russians.
Borisov came out of that meeting saying that a contract on renting the Tartous port to Russia was expected to be signed soon.
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 Tartous. It would allow for the Russian Navy to expand its technical support and logistics base. It would also enables visits of Russian ships in Syria’s territorial waters, internal waters, and ports.
The Tartous port is big enough to take in a missile cruiser but unlike the port facilities used by the US Navy’s 5th Fleet in the Gulf, it is not big enough for an aircraft carrier. Under a 1971 deal with Syria, Russia has leased the Tartous facility as part of a multi-billion-dollar debt write-off.
Russia, along with Iran, has given Assad crucial support throughout the country’s eight-year war effort, which broke out 8 years ago, with devastating consequences. Russian bombers and missile vessels have launched some 10 thousand bombing raids and rocket strikes against terrorist strongholds and bases all over Syria in the last four years, which have helped turn the tide of the conflict in president Assad’s favor follow the request for assistance by the Syrian government in 2015.
On that day, the Russian publication Sputnik said that: “Tartous port in Syria will be leased to Russia for 49 years for transportation and economic usage within the coming week.” It also quoted Borisov – who is also his country’s president on the Joint Russian-Syrian Committee for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation – saying that the, “main issue that needs to be given positive dynamics is the usage of Tartous port for economic and commercial purposes.”
The Russian military also has its primary base in the same province, the Hemeimeem air base located in southern Latakia. Since September 2015, it has directeds all its military and other governmental operations in Syria from here. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the base in December 2017, met there by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian government has sought to reassure people that the port of Tartous would be run cooperatively by Syria and Russia, to the benefit of both countries. Transport Minister, Ali Hammoud, denied reports on social media that Tartous port was being rented or bartered away with the Russians, saying that the investment contract was for a partnership in administering, expanding and operating the Tartous port, according to the regulations used for partnerships between the public and private sector in Syria, and that it would be signed by the privately administered Russian Stroytransgaz company.
The Minister for Transport said that this investment would help break the blockade and reduce the oppressive sanctions, saying: “The presence of a global company invested in the port will create a positive atmosphere for global shipping and encourage them to use the harbour, which will reduce the effects of the oppressive blockade imposed on Syria and help deliver needs and necessities to the Syrian people.”
It is believed that following the new Tartous deal, the port is set to become the largest of its kind on the Mediterranean. Some observers view the lease agreement as a strategic move by the two allies in Damascus and Moscow to break the increasing US-led blockade over Syria, which has had a grave impact on the daily life of ordinary Syrians in recent months.
One such current example is the severe fuel shortages, widely blamed on strict severe American pressure on to Egypt to not let any such supplies heading for Syrian ports through the Suez Canal. As talks on the need for a quickly available alternative grew louder among Syrians, and leakeds information of a land route from Iran and/or Iraq to fill the gap in fuel shortage, the deal regarding the Tartous port with Russian came suddenly, surprising almost everybody, including the majority of Syrians themselves, and thus sparking mixed feelings and reactions about the deal itself.