Assad seeks Russian help in face of US sanctions

Russian FM meets Assad in Damascus for first visit since 2012.
Monday 07/09/2020
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walk during a meeting in Damascus, Syria September 7. (Reuters)
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walk during a meeting in Damascus, Syria September 7. (Reuters)

DAMASCUS - Russia and Syria plan to sign an economic pact before the end of the year that is partly aimed at circumventing US sanctions, Russia’s deputy prime minister Yuri Borisov said Monday as he led a high-level delegation on a visit to Damascus with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Borisov said the Russian side is expecting to sign the pact on his next visit in December, adding that it includes more than forty new projects in the energy sector, reconstruction of a number of power stations and offshore oil extraction.

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian President Bashar Assad walk during a meeting in Damascus, Syria September 7. (Reuters)
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian President Bashar Assad walk during a meeting in Damascus, Syria September 7. (Reuters)

The agreement, he added, would “outline a new framework for trade and economic ties between the two countries for the coming years” while providing relief from US sanctions, which he said were “strangling” the Syrian people.

Borisov spoke at a joint press conference with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Lavrov in Damascus after the delegation met with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syria faces an unprecedented economic crisis after nearly a decade of civil war and Western sanctions. The economic and financial situation has been worsened by the financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, Syria’s main link with the outside world and where many Syrians have their money. Syria is also grappling with a coronavirus outbreak.

Russia has been a close ally of Assad in Syria’s devastating nine-year civil war, lending his government vital military, economic and political support. Russian troops have been fighting alongside Syrian government forces since 2015, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the war-torn country twice, including in January this year.

With the help of Russia, as well as regional ally Iran and its proxy Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Assad has largely succeeded in crushing the armed rebellion against him. The rebels are confined to the northern Idlib province, where a truce has been in place for months.

— Economic hardship —

But Syria has been ruined, the economy has spiralled out of control, and the country remains divided. Turkey-backed forces control a sliver of territory along the border, and US backed Kurdish forces control an oil-rich area in the northeast.

“We have to admit that most of the areas rich in oil and gas are outside the control of the Syrian government,” Borisov said Monday. “This fact prevents the Syrian government from trading in oil, given that it is an important source of revenue.”

“The same applies to agricultural lands,” he added. “After Syria used to export grain, it now imports it. … This harms food security.”

Borisov blamed the United States for the economic deterioration in Syria, which risks reversing the government’s recent military gains, calling US policies “unconstructive.”

“The most important reason for the tragic situation in Syria is the devastating situation of the United States of America, in addition to the Kurds’ unwillingness to communicate with Damascus and hand over control to the legitimate government over agricultural areas and oil fields,” Borisov said.

Lavrov also criticised US and Western sanctions on Syria, saying they are “trying to strangle the Syrian people.”

The Syrian president is said to have told his Russian interlocutors he was keen to expand economic and business relations with Moscow, his closest ally, to help Syria weather crippling economic sanctions.

According to state media, Assad said he wanted to see Russian investments in key areas of the economy that had been agreed in the past succeed.

“The government was determined to continue to work with Russian allies to implement signed agreements and to ensure the success of Russian investments in Syria,” Assad said, according to state media.

Pro-government newspaper Al Watan quoted Syria’s ambassador to the Russian Federation, Riad Haddad, as saying that the Russian delegation’s visit “is of special importance, given the political and economic files that will be discussed,” which he said included progress in the work of a committee to discuss possible amendments to the Syrian constitution and Western sanctions on Syria, as well as efforts to fight terrorism.

Talks between government, opposition and civil society delegations resumed in Geneva late last month, with the sides discussing a possible new constitution for the country. The UN’s envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen has called the talks a prospective “door-opener” to a final resolution of Syria’s long-running conflict.

The pandemic forced the postponement of an earlier meeting in March.

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov (not pictured), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (front R) and Syrian President Bashar Assad (front 2L) walk during their meeting in Damascus on September 7. (AFP)
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov (not pictured), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (front R) and Syrian President Bashar Assad (front 2L) walk during their meeting in Damascus on September 7. (AFP)

Borisov and Lavrov arrived after Moscow said it would support Damascus in the face of tougher US sanctions, which penalise foreign firms dealing with Syrian government entities.

“Russia turned the tide for Assad and with the regime now facing its gravest challenges, Moscow is in a better position than any other time to further squeeze Assad,” said one Western diplomat who follows Syria.

Although Assad has now regained most of the territory he lost, the economy is in tatters, leaving many Syrians in poverty as the currency has lost 80% of its value.

Russia has criticised the new US sanctions that took effect in June under the so-called Caesar Act. Washington says the sanctions aim to cut off revenue for Assad’s government and push him back into UN-led talks to end the conflict.

Syria is pinning its hopes on Russia, its biggest foreign ally, to help it shore up its economy. Syria’s main regional ally, Iran, is itself also struggling to cope under a separate round of US sanctions.

Hussam Taleb, a Syrian pro-government analyst, told Syrian state television the Russian visit would anger Washington, which he said was “fighting us in our livelihood by passing the Caesar Act to deprive us of our wealth.”

Western diplomats say Putin’s military involvement in Syria, its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, secured Moscow major regional influence and a bigger foothold in a naval base in Syria’s Tartus port.

— Fearing transition —

Arab sources revealed to The Arab Weekly that Syrian regime circles have been apprehensive about the visit of the high-level Russian delegation for other reasons.

They explained that the Syrian regime is concerned that the high-level Russian visit could mean that the Russians are preparing to tell Assad’s regime to take certain actions soon.

These actions would include accepting the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254, which means preparing for a transitional phase in Syria in light of the drafting of a new constitution.

Lavrov’s visit to Damascus was announced within the context of meetings held last week in Geneva of the committee in charge of drafting a new Syrian constitution.

UN envoy Pedersen participated in those meetings and noted that the Syrian regime showed no urgency in discussing the drafting of a new Syrian constitution under which Syrian presidential elections would be held in June 2021.

Lavrov said that his country, as a guarantor country of the Astana process, will continue to help the Syrians in the task of changing the constitution within the framework of Security Council Resolution 2254.

Prior to his recent meeting in Moscow with Pederson, Lavrov said that “not all problems have been resolved and there has been no agreement on all matters related to future work, but in general the (Geneva meetings were) very useful and fruitful.”