Reopened borders another indication of Assad’s triumph

The renewal of UN-mandated operations along the ceasefire border are indicators of the revival of the regime’s power.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Crucial route. Syrian soldiers ride in an army truck near the Nassib-Jaber border post, on July 6.  (AFP)
Crucial route. Syrian soldiers ride in an army truck near the Nassib-Jaber border post, on July 6. (AFP)

An old Chinese expression advises: “If you want to get rich build a road.” Countries prosper when they trade across their borders. This is a lesson Syria and a growing list of its neighbours are taking to heart.

After too many years of civil war that closed traditional trade routes throughout the region, Syria and its neighbours are trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again — refurbishing moribund border posts and roads, reviving long-dormant transport networks and establishing the basis for economic revival fuelled by an incremental resumption of manufacturing and trading relations across reopened borders.

September 28 saw the “soft opening” of the Nassib-Jaber border post linking Syria with Jordan only two months after Damascus re-established sovereignty over the border by defeating rebels who had been in the area since 2015.

Syria’s trade with the world suffered a precipitous deterioration because of the war, declining from $21.8 billion in 2007 to $8 billion in 2017. Bilateral trade with Jordan in 2010, the last year of the post’s normal operation, amounted to $750 million — a vital asset to both countries trying to restore trade and commercial routes.

The resumption of overland trade through Nassib-Jaber is proceeding with the revival of intra-Syrian trade via recently reopened routes, made possible by the expansion of government control in Syria.

Opening the border with Jordan will produce benefits far beyond bilateral trade. The war upended historic trading relationships throughout the region. Syria lost control of its borders except with Lebanon, whose only another shared frontier is with Israel, long closed to commercial trade.

Turkey lost key Gulf markets formerly served by transport routes through Syria. The absence of land-based transport added to costs that made trade with many traditional markets uncompetitive. Syrian manufacturers, many of them in the commercial and manufacturing heartland of Aleppo, relocated to Turkey — sometimes moving entire factories — in the hope of maintaining existing trading relationships.

Other countries sought to grab this trade, without success. The option to export to Iraq and Gulf markets by sea — through the Suez Canal — was attempted and even subsidised by Egypt but ended up uneconomical. The same fate befell an attempt to export goods to the Gulf via a Turkish-Israeli-Jordanian sea-rail-truck link.

Lebanon’s agricultural export trade has been particularly hard hit by Nassib-Jaber’s closure of the route to lucrative Gulf markets. Lebanese President Michel Aoun welcomed the Jordanian-Syrian agreement, noting that it would “revive Lebanon’s struggling export sector and reduce the cost of exporting Lebanese goods to other Arab countries.”

Those developments have begun to revive clearance companies operating at the Syrian-Jordanian border. Approximately 5,000 Jordanian truck drivers who lost jobs after the border’s closure are preparing to return to work. Goods must be produced to fill those trucks, leading to expectations that the Syrian economy will begin to move from aid-based to a revived market economy that employs its citizens to produce goods and services and in so doing re-establish regional trade and manufacturing.

“We have been receiving many calls from traders in the Gulf, Lebanon and Syria about when the freight movement will be resumed, as they are eager to start their exporting and importing commodities using trucks, which is less costly for them,” said Deifallah Abu Aqouleh, president of Jordan’s Association of Owners of Clearance and Transport Companies.

The resumption of trade through the Jordan-Syrian border is not an isolated incident. Near Syria’s border with Iraq, a US military base at al-Tanf has closed the main Damascus-Baghdad highway, though there is a smaller crossing at Abu Kamal farther east that is not open for trade.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem discussed speeding up the reopening of the Abu Kamal route, bypassing the link blocked by the Americans. “No one should isolate Syria,” Jaafari said during a recent visit to Damascus.

Confirmation of Syria’s incremental reintegration with its neighbours has also come from an unlikely source. The same day that Nassib-Jaber was opened, the long-closed UN-operated Golan Heights crossing point at Quneitra, shuttered since 2014, resumed operation.

The UN Disengagement Observer Force’s abandonment of facilities along the Golan frontier during the war suggested the end of an era. The renewal of UN-mandated operations along the ceasefire border, like the resumption of trade through the Jordanian border, are indicators of the revival of the regime’s power and recognition by its neighbours that Damascus is the only source of authority in formally contested border areas.