A Milestone on the Road to Recovery or simply a Pause for Breath?
After having been closed for three years, the Jordan-Syrian al-Naseeb border crossing has reopened on Monday, 15th October 2018. The Syrian army retook the area along the border in July 2018 during a week-long Russian-backed offensive that drove various armed fighters from their stronghold. Jordan had closed its borders in 2015 due to the fact that the Syrian government had lost the control over almost the entire area in and around Dara’a. The opening now revives an old trade route that is vital for the entire region. This development may contribute to an easing of the economic situation of some countries in the region to a certain extent, but it is too soon to refer to this event as the beginning of the end of the Syrian Civil War.
We would like to answer the three most pressing questions concerning this recent turn of events.
What economic consequences might the border opening have for Jordan, especially considering the protests against the austerity measures in May and June of this year?
The al-Naseeb border crossing has always been a major commercial lifeline for both Jordan and Syria, generating nearly USD 600 million annually before the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. More than 7.000 trucks were estimated to have crossed the border daily. Jordan mainly imported textiles, animal and vegetable products from Syria, while exporting pharmaceutical and chemical products, machinery and electrical appliances. Since the closing of the crossing due to security issues in 2015 though, the trade volume between Syria and Jordan has fallen to almost 0% - with the exception of minor trade having continued between the ports of Aqaba and Latakia. The consequences of the closure were devastating for the entire region: Both Turkey and Lebanon are highly dependent on this trade route as a doorway to the Gulf. Especially landlocked Lebanon suffered from the closing, its exports falling by 35% after the outbreak of the war.
Thus for Jordan, the reopening and the resumption of trade relations will have important economic benefits that would give the country – tormented by austerity measures and tax increases – a desperately needed pause for breath: Around 70% of the income of the Jordanian provinces Ramtha and Irbid in the north for instance are dependent on trade with Syria. It is to be expected that many Jordanians will take the opportunity in the coming weeks to purchase cheap goods on the other side of the border. Jordan’s economy and population suffer immensely from the rising prices, which is why the Jordanian government has apparently insisted on the border opening since mid-2018. End of August, the customs authorities had been officially instructed to resume their work once the borders would reopen and in early September Jordanian and Syrian business representatives met for official talks in Damascus – for the first time since the outbreak of the war. Despite positive outlooks, experts warn against forecasting a too rapid improvement of both the economic and political situation.
Jordan is seen as an anchor of stability in a region tormented by upheavals. How does Amman view the border opening from a geostrategic perspective and where does the country position itself within the conflict situation between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Jordan is in a very difficult position at the moment: On the one hand, it is extremely keen on resuming trade relations with Syria. On the other hand, Jordan is dependent on Saudi funds to a great extent: Only in June of this year has Saudi Arabia – together with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait - provided fiscal aid for the kingdom in the amount of Euro 2.1 billion. Therefore, Amman will do everything possible to merely stabilize the economic relations with Syria, but not the diplomatic ones, in order not to affront the government in Riyadh. Too big of a rapprochement to Damascus would also be met with a big lack of comprehension in the West, for whom Jordan is a vital partner in the region. Iran and Jordan do hold diplomatic relations, although these are of little geopolitical importance. The Jordanian as well as the US-government have several times voiced their concern about the growing influence of Iran-backed militias in Syria’s south.
The Jordanian-Syrian relations had been preserved also after the eruption of the war, until the Syrian ambassador was expelled from the country due to verbal attacks against Jordan in May 2014. President Assad in turn frequently accused Jordan of having opened its Northern border for arms smuggle since 2013. But despite of the tense situation, Amman at no point in time demanded President Assad to step down, but always advocated for a political solution of the conflict. Due to its extremely fragile economic situation, Amman needs to be particularly cautious not to alienate any of its donors. On the other hand, the opening of the border to Syria also promises a revitalization of the economy – not only locally, but also regionally.
For Syria in turn, the border opening symbolizes a diplomatic victory and entails the hope of being able to reenter the international stage as legitimate actor. While most Syrian-Lebanese border crossings have remained open all along and Israel last week officially opened its Quneitra-crossing, the Syrian-Iraqi border could be next – The foreign ministers of both countries already met for a round of talks in Damascus. At present, Syria's crossing with Iraq is only open for government or military uses. Turkey for its part, will carefully observe the developments in the region since this trade route is also of utmost importance to Ankara.
According to official statements there are about 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan. What does the opening of the border crossing mean to these people?
At this point in time, the opening of the border alone does not enable the secured return of Syrian refugees from Jordan into their home country. In addition to the fact that many Syrians have no way of finding out whether they are blacklisted by the Assad-government or whether their property will be returned to them after having been confiscated, most young men live in fear of being recruited by the military. Moreover, most Syrians in Jordan are originally from the South of the country or from Idlib province, where the conflict is still ongoing. As long as the security there as well as in and around Dara’a cannot be guaranteed, most Syrians – despite of constantly rising living expenses and low salaries in Jordan – will not see any possibility of returning.
You can also view this article in German at Freiheit.org