Opening of Syria crossing lends lifeline to Jordan

As violence has receded in parts of Syria, Jordan would like to share in the reconstruction process.
Sunday 21/10/2018
Syrian Army soldiers at the Jaber-Nassib border crossing with Jordan in Daraa, on October 15. (Reuters)
A return to normalcy. Syrian Army soldiers at the Jaber-Nassib border crossing with Jordan in Daraa, on October 15. (Reuters)

LONDON - The Jaber-Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria has reopened after having been closed for three years since rebels seized territory on the Syrian side of the border. The Syrian government, with the backing of Russia, retook the area in south-western Syria in July.

Before its closure, the crossing, known as Jaber on the Jordanian side and Nassib in Syria, was a key stop on a trade route worth billions of dollars every year connecting Lebanon and Turkey with the Gulf. Lebanese President Michel Aoun praised the opening, saying it would “revive the various productive sectors and reduce the cost of exporting goods from Lebanon to Arab countries.”

Jordan’s state news agency Petra said 199 people crossed the border into Syria on October 15, the first day it was opened. It reported that Syrians entering Jordan need a security clearance from Jordan, a practice instituted because of the war.

Also on October 15, Israel opened the border between the occupied Golan Heights and Syria but said only UN peacekeepers would be allowed to cross for some time. The Syrian government has been in discussions with Iraq to open the Abu Kamal crossing between Syria’s Deir ez-Zor and Iraq’s Anbar provinces.

At the Jaber-Nassib crossing, Mohammad Hamsho, a member of a Syrian business delegation travelling to Jordan, spoke of improvement to the economies of both countries due to the opening. The head of the Jordanian Chamber of Industry, Adnan Abu Ragheb, told local media that the Syrian delegation would talk with their Jordanian counterparts. Jordanian business delegations visited Damascus earlier this year.

Jordan was long a staunch supporter of the Syrian opposition. In November 2011, Jordanian King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to directly call on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. Jordan became a hub for Western efforts to train and arm rebels in southern Syria. Over time, however, Amman’s stance on Assad’s departure weakened.

Jordan kept its borders open for Syrians fleeing the war, leading to the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The United Nations said 671,919 registered Syrian refugees were in Jordan as of October 9. By mid-2013, Jordanian authorities had tightened border controls. In 2014, they established the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate as part of the Interior Ministry.

“The Jordanians essentially stopped encouraging the armed opposition to overthrow Assad since late 2015,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington.

This, he said, was tied to Jordan’s economic problems, which were exacerbated by the war in Syria. Jordan has reported rising inflation, low economic growth and high unemployment. Earlier this year, protests erupted over price hikes and a plan to increase income taxes.

Jordan’s unemployment rate was 18.4% in the first quarter of 2018, said the World Bank, which predicted Jordan’s GDP to grow 2.4% in 2018 and 2.5% in 2019.

“Jordan’s entire focus in Syria over the last couple of years has been on improving its economy and securing its northern border,” said Heras. The reopening of the border is expected to bring “economic gains to the cash-strapped kingdom,” said Suha Ma’ayeh, a journalist in Amman.

Abu Ragheb spoke to the Jordan Times in April about the economic importance of Syria. “The Syrian market is very vital for our industries. Syria is also a gateway into several important markets,” he said.

The success of the Syrian government on the battlefield in southern Syria has implications for refugees in Jordan, which “would like to see them head back to their country,” said Ma’ayeh. Amman, Heras said, has been seeking guarantees from Russia that the situation was secure enough for refugees to return.

Heras said the economy was Jordan’s number one priority. “Syria is less a concern than the threat of internal collapse of Jordan’s sociopolitical system because of a poor economy,” he said.

As violence has receded in parts of Syria, Jordan would like to share in the reconstruction process, said Ma’ayeh. Before his visit to Damascus this year, Abu Ragheb said the Jordanian delegation would discuss “Jordan’s role and efforts to help in the reconstruction process of Syria, as Jordan can be a key player and contributor in this regard.”

Heras said: “The Jordanians need the trade to flow into and out of Syria again, even with Assad still in power in Damascus, to stave off the economic collapse inside of Jordan… For Jordan, the economy is a threat worse than [the Islamic State].”