Russia to modernize Syria port, build railway across Syria to Persian Gulf

Major commercial projects could potentially make it easier for Tehran to increase its influence in Israel’s northeastern neighbor

A Russian ship at Syria's port of Tartus (YouTube screenshot)
A Russian ship at Syria's port of Tartus (YouTube screenshot)

Russia is considering a slew of major commercial projects in Syria, a senior Russian official said Tuesday. Some of them could potentially increase Iran’s influence in the country.

Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said after meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus that Russia will spend $500 million to modernize Syria’s commercial port of Tartus.

Borisov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that the four-year modernization program envisages an overhaul of the old port in Tartus and the construction of a new one.

He added that there is also a plan to build a railway across Syria and Iraq that will link Syria’s Mediterranean coast with the Persian Gulf.

This September 6, 2019 satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies appears to show the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya-1 off the coast of Tartus, Syria. (Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies via AP)

Israel is deeply concerned about the possibility of Iran sending advanced weaponry to its Lebanese proxy, terror group Hezbollah, which has a significant presence in Syria. The Jewish state has carried out scores of airstrikes in Syria in recent years, many of them believed to have been aimed at Iranian weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. The Israel Defense Forces has also intercepted several ships carrying weapons from Iran to Tartus.

Israel considers Hezbollah to be its most immediate threat, saying the group has amassed an arsenal of some 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel. More recently, it has accused the group of trying to import or develop guided missiles.

Both the railway to the Persian Gulf and the overhaul of the port of Tartus have the potential to make it easier for Iran to supply terror groups on Israel’s northern border with advanced arms that could be used against it in future confrontations.

Russia has a Soviet-era naval base in Tartus, the only such facility outside the former Soviet Union.

Illustrative image of a tank flying the Hezbollah terror group’s flag seen in the Qara area in Syria’s Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)

In 2017, Moscow struck a deal with Assad’s government to extend its lease on Tartus for 49 years. The agreement allows Russia to keep up to 11 warships there, including nuclear-powered ones.

Russia has waged a military campaign in Syria that helped shore up Assad’s hold on power and allowed his government to reclaim control over most of the country following a devastating civil war.

Speaking during Tuesday’s meeting with Assad in Damascus, Borisov noted that Russia helped restore a fertilizer plant in Homs and plans to invest $200 million to expand its capacity.

He also told Assad that Russia will deliver 100,000 metric tons of grain as part of humanitarian assistance to Syria. The shipments will start this month, Borisov said.

A Russian Cabinet document published Tuesday on the official state portal says that the Russian government has earmarked nearly $17 million in assistance to Syria this year. The document says it includes allocations under various United Nations programs to help municipalities and health care facilities in Syria.

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