Syria is planning to join the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan soon, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Kadri Jamil said on Friday.
“I think we will join the Customs Union in the near future,” Jamil told RIA Novosti on the sidelines of a news conference in Moscow.
Jamil, who is in charge of economic issues, led a delegation of Syrian ministers at talks with Russian government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin and First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov, earlier this week.
The leader of Syria’s opposition Popular Front for Change and Liberation, Jamil joined the new government appointed by President Bashar al-Assad in June as part of his belated efforts to reconcile with the opposition.
Damascus has been considering joining the Customs Union for three years now, Jamil said. But economic cooperation with Russia is growing increasingly important for Damascus as it has been struggling to sustain Syria’s economy which has been hit by sanctions imposed on the Assad regime by the European Union and the United States, he added.
Those sanctions, he said, demonstrated that the position of Western governments was “hypocritical” and “wrong.”
“They say that they attack the Syrian regime, but if fact, they attack each Syrian citizen,” he said.
More than 20 million Syrians have been badly affected by the sanctions, Said Hneidi, the minister in charge of Syria’s oil industry who was also part of the delegation, said.
Last week, the European Union approved a new, 17th set of sanctions against Syria, including a tougher arms embargo, in response to the escalating violence in the Arab country. Western powers say that the bulk of responsibility for the bloodshed lies with the Syrian government, and insist on Assad’s resignation as the only way to end the crisis which has already claimed up to 20,000 lives, according to Syrian activists.
Russia has foiled Western attempts to force Assad from power, vetoing three UN Security Council resolutons against him. Moscow says Syrians themselves should decide on Assad's future in the country’s politics.
The most urgent task facing the Syrian government is to “break the [economic] blockade” against the country, Jamil said on Friday, adding that Moscow’s support was crucial to achieve the goal.
Russia has agreed to help Syria economically, and talks are under way on the supply of Russian oil, oil products and gas to Damascus, he said.
“We have reached understanding with Russia to search for ways to solve these problems,” he said, adding that relevant decisions were expected “within the next few weeks or months.”
Damascus has also asked Moscow to provide a loan to help sustain the country’s economy, Syrian Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jleilati told journalists. Russia has agreed to consider the issue, he said.
Jamil also accused “extremists” in the Syrian opposition of undermining efforts to reach understanding between the government and its opponents. The main goal of the new Syrian cabinet, which includes several moderate opposition representatives, is national reconciliation through dialogue – “but they don’t want dialogue,” he added.
Commenting on the resignation of UN and Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan, which was announced on Thursday, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Fattah Ammura said “we were full of optimism” over Annan’s efforts to settle the Syrian crisis. But the hardline opposition was not willing to honor Annan’s peace plan, while international powers also failed to overcome their differences and show strong support for Annan’s efforts, he said.
Annan’s six-point plan, which included a demand for the Syrian government to immediately pull heavy weapons and troops out of residential areas and for rebel forces to put down their arms, was introduced months ago, but has never taken hold. As government troops continued their heavy shelling of cities and towns, the opposition Free Syrian Army said it would not stick to a ceasefire agreement. The fighting has intensified in Syria over the past few months, with dozens of new deaths being reported by Syrian activists every day.
Annan said on Thursday he did not receive “all the support that the cause deserve,” hitting at “continuous finger-pointing and name-calling” at the UN Security Council which he said had prevented coordinated action to end the conflict.
“You have to understand: as an envoy, I can’t want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council or the international community for that matter,” he said.
World leaders have expressed regret over Annan’s decision to leave his post when his mandate ends on August 31. UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was negotiating a replacement for Annan with his Arab League colleague Nabil el-Arabi.