MOSCOW – Senior Syrian officials have pleaded with Russia for financial loans and supplies of oil products, a sign that the global fallout from President Bashar Assad's crackdown on a rebellion is squeezing his regime.
While the Syrian delegation was holding talks in Moscow, a squadron of Russian warships was approaching Syria's port of Tartus, the only naval base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union. The Russian Defense Ministry said that some of the ships may call on the port to replenish their supplies.
Syria's Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, who led a delegation of several Cabinet ministers on a trip to Moscow, told reporters Friday that they have asked for a Russian loan to replenish Syria's hard currency reserves, which have been depleted by international embargoes on Syrian exports.
Jamil and Syrian Finance Minister Mohammad al-Julaylati refused to disclose the sum of the loan Syria is seeking.
"We have asked Russia for a hard currency loan to allow us overcome the current problems, and they promised to consider our request," al-Julaylati said at a news conference. "We need some additional resources. Countries in such situations usually ask for foreign loans."
Jamil said Syria may get the loan within weeks. Russian authorities did not issue any comments about the requests.
Syria is believed to be burning quickly through the $17 billion in foreign reserves that the government was believed to have at the start of Assad's crackdown on a popular uprising that erupted in March 2011. The conflict has turned into a civil war, and rights activists estimate more than 19,000 people have been killed over the past 17 months.
Jamil also said Damascus wants to get diesel oil and other oil products from Russia in exchange for crude supplies. He said Syria currently produces 200,000 barrels of crude. "The most important thing is to break the blockade of Syria and continue the supplies of oil and imports of oil products," Jamil said.
Syria blames U.S. and European Union sanctions for shortages that have left Syrians standing in long lines to pay inflated prices for cooking gas, sugar and other staples. Syrian Oil Minister Said Maza Hanidi said the EU embargo led to fuel shortages affecting 20 million Syrians and that a deal with Russia should fix the problem.
In May, the U.S. ambassador to Damascus denied that the international sanctions were to blame for the shortages.
"Our sanctions purposefully do not target oil and diesel imports, because we know that the Syrian people need both for their day-to-day lives," Ambassador Robert Ford wrote on the embassy's Facebook page. Ford said the government is using fuel imports for its tanks. He was forced to leave Syria in February citing security concerns.
Russia has protected Syria from U.N. sanctions and continued to supply it with weapons throughout the conflict. The Kremlin, backed by fellow veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member China, has blocked any plans that would call on Assad to step down.
Russian news agencies reported Friday that two of the three amphibious assault ships which are part of the squadron heading to Syrian waters will call at Tartus while the third will cast anchor just outside the port.
They said that each of the three ships is carrying about 120 marines backed by armored vehicles. It wasn't immediately clear whether some of the marines will stay to protect Tartus. Some Russian media said the marines were supposed to ensure a safe evacuation of Russian personnel and navy equipment from the Tartus base if necessary.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that there was no immediate plan for the ships to call at the port, but added that some of them may do that if the navy considers it necessary to replenish onboard supplies.
Elizabeth Kennedy contributed to this report from Beirut.