A replica of a wooden Phoenician ship being built in the harbour on the Syrian island of Arwad, some 3 kms off the Mediterranean coastal city of Tartous, northwest of Damascus on July 19, 2008. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ AFP/ LOUAI BESHARA
A replica of a wooden Phoenician ship being built in the harbour on the Syrian island of Arwad, some 3 kms off the Mediterranean coastal city of Tartous, northwest of Damascus on July 19, 2008. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ AFP/ LOUAI BESHARA

Damascus — A Russian firm is to take over Syria’s largest port for 49 years and invest $500m in expanding it, the transport minister says.

A deal would be signed for the “management, expansion and operation” of Tartous port 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 al-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.

“Tartous is an old port whose docks range between 4m and 13m deep,” he said.

The facilities are not suitable for ships heavier than 30 tons to 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% 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.

AFP