(MENAFN - Oxford Business Group) Damascus this week plays host to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who makes his first official visit to Syria since assuming office in 2008. The bilateral relationship was formerly one of the region's most significant, yet following the fall of the Soviet Union and a period of Russian retrenchment in the 1990s its importance to both parties diminished. With Syria looking to win some 40bn in foreign investment over the next five years however, and Russia also looking to extend its diplomatic reach in the Middle East, officials in both Damascus and Moscow will be hoping the visit can breathe new life into the entente.
Speaking to Russian news agency RIA Novosti ahead of President Medvedev's visit, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Economy highlighted the historic role that Russia " as part of the former USSR " had played in the development of Syria's economy. "Thanks to the cooperation between our countries that has been developing since the 1950s, the foundation of Syria's economic potential was established," Ramzi Asawda Aswada said, adding that, "With the participation of the USSR and then Russia, 90 industrial facilities and pieces of infrastructure were built in Syria." According to Aswada, Soviet-era assistance led to the development of one-third of Syria's electric power capacity, one-third of its oil-processing facilities, and the three-fold expansion of land under irrigation.
With Russia now committed to free-market policies, and Syria moving towards greater economic liberalisation, hopes for future cooperation between the two nations rest upon increased trade and investment. Ali Hamra, the economy editor of Syrian daily Al Watan, was also quoted by RIA as saying that, "Syrians are interested in attracting Russian companies into large economic projects and also in Russian investments, which are rather modest so far." Likely areas of Russian interest include the development of Syrian oil and gas fields, as well as construction projects in fields such as power generation, sea ports, and the renovation of Syria's industrial infrastructure. Russia's oil and gas companies may also be interested in partnering with the Syrian government in constructing additional refinery capacity. A recently planned 140,000-bpd refinery in conjunction with Kuwait's Noor Financial was mothballed last month, and the government is still looking to enhance the country's domestic refinery capacity.
According to Asawda, "Damascus is also interested in increasing bilateral trade volumes. The removal of Customs barriers might contribute to achieving this goal." He added that Syria hoped to increase its presence in Russia's agriculture and textile sectors, while in turn Russia could supply Syria with equipment and machinery.
Enhanced cooperation with Russia is taking place in other areas too. Following President Bashar Al Assad's visit to Moscow in 2008, Syria agreed to allow Russia to modernise port facilities at Tartous and Lattakia to provide the Russian Navy with Mediterranean berthing. As a result of that agreement, the flagship of Russia's northern fleet, the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky, last month stopped off in Tartous on its way to exercises in the Indian Ocean. Some 50 Russian naval officers are reported to be deployed in Tartous to maintain and supply ships in the Mediterranean. The 2008 meeting also reportedly involved Syria signing new contracts for Russian missile units.
With a significant history of cooperation behind them, and with many Russian energy companies focusing on expansion abroad in recent years, it would seem that Syria and Russia have much to offer each other. The result is likely to see this bilateral relationship develop once more into a key feature of the Middle East's strategic landscape.