DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria's government has produced much more power in recent months as the army recaptured natural gas fields from militants, the electricity ministry said on Tuesday.
Bassam Darwish, head of the electricity ministry's planning unit, told Reuters that the amount of gas the petroleum ministry provided to fuel power plants has nearly doubled since last winter.
"There had been a very big problem with securing fuel and we went through a difficult winter... We have seen an improvement," Darwish said. "After the liberation of any area, the workers of the energy sector directly go in and repair facilities."
With the help of Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, the army has driven rebels from Syria's main urban centers in western Syria and marched eastwards against Islamic State.
Syrian troops with their allies pushed into the oil-rich province of Deir al-Zor last month, after steady advances against Islamic State insurgents across the central and eastern desert. Several gas fields have fallen back under government control since last year.
Electricity supply has been highly restricted and irregular across various parts of the country during the six-year war. Improving it would help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad restore economic growth in territory the government controls.
Since early in Syria's multi-sided conflict, Damascus and the electricity ministry have worked with friendly states to help keep the power system running, Darwish said.
"Contracts were signed with Russia, with China, with Iran... that enabled us to continue working in the past," he said.
Earlier this month, Iran signed deals with Damascus to repair and build power plants, a potentially lucrative move for Tehran that points to its deepening economic role.
During the visit by Syria's electricity minister to Tehran, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding that includes restoring a main control centre for the Syrian power grid. The deals also involve a contract to supply power to Aleppo city.
Darwish said the meeting led to "signing very important contracts" with Iranian energy company MAPNA, with strong support from the Islamic Republic.
Under the deals, Iran will make payment easy for the Syrian government, whose economy has been battered by war and Western sanctions, he said.
"The contracts...are based on payment facilities from the Iranian side," he added. "We expect very big contracts to come out of the MoU that was signed... very large numbers, always with preferential terms for the Syrian side."
Shunned by Western powers, Damascus has been looking to friendly states to play a major role in rebuilding the country.
Iran will build an oil refinery in Syria after the war ends, the head of downstream technologies at Iran's Research Institute of the Petroleum Industry was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
In January, Iran's government and entities close to its elite Revolutionary Guards signed major telecommunications and mining deals with Damascus.
Since at least 2012, Iran has provided critical military support to the Damascus government, helping it regain swathes of the country. Iran experts say Tehran is now looking to reap a financial dividend.
Before the war in Syria, "power cuts and blackouts were almost non-existent," Darwish said. The government produced less than 20 billion kilowatt hour last year, down from 50 billion in 2011, he said.
"It was constantly declining because of the lack of fuel," in addition to destruction in the electric system and energy sector, including power plants and oil wells, he said.
Darwish estimated that direct damages in the power sector throughout the war amounted to between $4 and 5 billion. Indirect losses resulting from the lack of electricity to various sectors, residential zones, and institutions, had reached nearly $60 billion, he said.
"This shows us...the scale of the efforts that will have to be very big to restore the electric system," which will also require very large investments, he said.
"This issue is related to the availability of funding, which is currently the main obstacle," he said. The government was doing all it could, "but the size of the damages is big."
(Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Writing by Ellen Francis in Beirut; editing by Mark Heinrich)