DAMASCUS: A Russian firm is to take over Syria’s largest port for 49 years and invest US$500 million in expanding it, the transport minister in Damascus said Thursday.

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 a naval base in Tartous and 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 current facilities are not suitable for ships heavier than 30-35 tonnes and “we needed to try to ensure very deep docks to accommodate cargoes of up to 100 tonnes.”

The expansion works are expected to increase the eastern Mediterranean port’s capacity from 4 million to 38 million tonnes a year, Hammoud said.

It would allow Syria to use the port — not those of foreign countries — for its reconstruction, he added.

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 after talks in Damascus with Assad that a deal for the port could be signed within a week.

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.

Stroytransgaz, founded in 1991, is one of the largest construction companies in Russia. It is 80% owned by Kremlin-linked oligarch Gennady Tymchenko.

In 2018, Syria awarded the company a 50-year concession to invest and extract phosphate in the central region of Palmyra. — AFP