Russian Deputy Minister Yury Borisov with Bashar al-Assad, Damascus, Syria, April 20, 2019
Amid an economic crisis exposing his “victory” in retaking parts of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has hosted senior Russian officials.
Assad met Prime Minister Yury Borisov, Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin, and several Russian Defence Ministry officials on Friday and Saturday.
Regime media gave a generic description of the discussions as about political talks —- Russia, Turkey, and Iran convene in the Kazakhstan capital Astana this week — trade, and Russian operations at the Tartous port.
But the backdrop for the meeting is a fuel shortage, reportedly after Iran cut off a line of credit, providing billions of dollars which included oil shipments.
Assad regime officials have insisted the cause is Egypt blocking passage of Iranian tankers through the Suez Canal. Cairo has denied the claims, although The Wall Street Journal reported in late March that deliveries had been prevented since January 2.
Earlier this year, shortages of gas for cooking and heating led to people queuing for hours and still not receiving supplies, even in the capital Damascus.
The regime is seeking reconstruction funds for more than $400 billion damage in the eight-year conflict. But Iran is facing its own serious difficulties and US sanctions, and Russia’s economic weakness and political caution limits its ability and willingness to provide the funds.
Western countries will not pay for reconstruction in regime areas until there is a meaningful political process, but Assad has received any course in which he has to leave power.
He has also balked at Russia’s proposals centering on a new constitution and elections, hesitant about involvement by the Syrian opposition.
This weekend Russian media mentioned the formation of a constitutional committee, which the opposition has agreed to join under UN oversight, but Assad regime media ignored.
Instead Syrian State news agency said Assad met Borisov to discuss trade and economic cooperation, “particularly in the fields of energy, industry, and increasing trade”.
According to Russia’s TASS, Borisov said a contract for the “rental” of the Tartous port and military base will be signed within a week. In 2017, the Russian Parliament ratified a deal with the Assad regime for Moscow’s permanent presence at naval and air bases.
Avoiding any reference to internal reasons for the economic crisis, SANA said Assad and Borisov discussed mechanisms to overcome obstacles “resulting from the sanctions which countries against the Syrian people imposed on Syria”.
“I am convinced that all our efforts aimed at the Syrian economic revival will be successful,” Borisov said, referring to discussions in December.
Those talks included provisions for Russia to expand its control of hydrocarbons exploration and production in Syria.