Seizing control of the Nasib border crossing with Jordan and the Damascus-Amman highway is a regional game changer for the Syrian regime’s relations with its neighbors and provides economic relief for Lebanon and Jordan. Simultaneously, reactivating the commercial trade routes in the Levant will test long-standing American and European policies of discouraging economic relations with Syria until President Bashar al-Assad steps down.
Three major developments paved the way for the Syrian regime’s swift and near total control of southwestern Syria: 1) The Russian-backed military operation of the Syrian regime, which began on June 19, threatened the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions in the southern front; 2) Jordan and Israel gave their tacit consent to Russia, which facilitated the Assad regime’s control of southwestern Syria in return for keeping Iran and its proxies away from the border areas; and 3) the July 6 deal between Russian forces and the FSA made the armed opposition agree to vacate all the areas along the border with Jordan. What remains out of the Syrian regime’s control along the 233-mile border with Jordan is a small pocket near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which is currently run by the so-called Islamic State (IS).
There are two official crossings on the Syrian-Jordanian border. First is the Nasib crossing on the southern outskirts of Daraa governorate, which faces al-Jaber crossing in the Mafraq governorate on the Jordanian side. The Syrian regime lost control of this border crossing in April 2015. The second official point of entry is the Old Customs building in Daraa city, which faces al-Ramtha crossing in Irbid governorate on the Jordanian side. The Syrian regime lost control in 2013 of this crossing that is primarily dedicated to travelers rather than commercial activities.
Nasib Border as a Regional Transportation Hub
The Nasib border crossing began operating in 1997 and became one of the busiest Syrian border crossings featuring a vibrant free trade zone. Before 2011, it connected the trade flow between Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon to the north and Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf to the south. The Nasib point of entry links to the Jaber crossing on the Jordanian side for incoming and outgoing travelers and cargo trucks.
After four years of spillover from the Syrian war, closing the Nasib crossing in April 2015 exacerbated the economic crisis in both Lebanon and Jordan. Before 2011, nearly 7,000 cargo trucks passed on a daily basis1 through Nasib, which is the primary land route for Lebanon’s foreign trade. The significant impact on Lebanese exports to Syria was felt once Syrian opposition factions seized control of the Nasib crossing. Data by the Lebanese Customs Administration show that there was a 75 percent decrease in overland exports between 2014 and 2016. For decades, Lebanese agricultural goods had passed through Nasib to reach Iraqi and Gulf markets; in the past three years, shipping costs have increased significantly as these goods had to be taken on the longer maritime route from Beirut’s seaport. The Lebanese media estimate2 that the goods passing through Nasib amount to $800 million ($500 million agricultural and $300 million industrial), which represents 30 percent of overall Lebanese exports. However, the pre-2011 level of trade might not apply to post-2018. When Lebanese goods return to the Gulf market through this land route, they will face tough competition from other exporters who benefited from their absence. In the past few years, the Egyptian market has also become the main destination for Lebanese agricultural goods, with 30 percent of Lebanese exports to Egypt in 2016 compared3 to 12.35 percent of exports to the Saudi market.
The Nasib crossing is known as Jordan’s “northern lung” and its closure in 2015 further strained the Jordanian economy. According to official data, Jordanian exports to Syria decreased4 by over 80 percent—from $238 million in 2010 to the current levels. These exports transiting through Syria typically take three routes: heading west to reach the Lebanese market or to Tartous seaport in Syria for shipment to Europe, or heading north to reach the Turkish market. Nearly $270 million, or 17 percent of total Jordanian exports ($1.55 billion), passed through5 the Nasib border before 2011, including 250,000 tons of Jordanian agricultural goods to Europe, while a monthly average of $84.5 million worth of Jordanian goods headed to Lebanese and Turkish markets. These Jordanian exports have decreased by 50 percent to Turkey and by 90 percent to Lebanon. Moreover, in the past three years Jordanian authorities have had to use the Aqaba seaport instead to reach Europe via the Suez Canal, which is a longer and more expensive alternative shipping route.
The economic slowdown in Jordan helps to explain the country’s key interest in opening this border crossing since last year. While closing its border and denying entry to Syrian refugees into Jordan, Amman played a decisive role in early July in convincing the FSA that a deal with Russia is inevitable. This Russian-Jordanian coordination will strengthen Amman’s bargaining power in benefiting from its cross-border trade with Syria.
Opening the Nasib Crossing: Impact and Challenges
Even before officially reopening the Nasib border, the political and economic impact can already be felt. Lebanese authorities will have to face the reality of direct engagement with the Syrian regime as they come under pressure from Lebanese farmers seeking to reduce their transportation costs to the Gulf market. In addition to facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their home country, the Nasib border will give Lebanese leaders who favor engaging with Damascus an additional argument to make their case. Lebanese agriculture minister Ghazi Zuaiter announced6 on July 16 that he might visit Damascus soon to discuss transiting Lebanese agricultural goods via the Nasib crossing. The Syrian regime, however, is making sure that the return of Lebanese products to transit through their territories will happen on its own terms. Lebanese traders are now required to acquire an import permit from Syrian authorities to trade across the border. In January 2018, Lebanese authorities briefly suspended granting licenses for Syrian vegetables and fruits imported from the Arida crossing in Tartous governorate due to pesticide contamination, which led to a steep price drop in these agricultural goods produced by farmers on the Syrian coast. Lebanon imports 200 to 400 tons per day of agricultural goods via this border crossing.
One day after the Syrian regime took control of the Nasib border, the Jordanian general manager of the Syrian Free Trade Zone company, Khaled al-Rahahleh, affirmed7 in a press briefing that this zone is logistically ready to resume its operations, hence the decision to reopen it is a political one. A Jordanian official told local media8 that Amman awaits Damascus’s decision to start direct engagement. The question is whether this communication will remain between the two embassies in Amman and Damascus or if official talks might ensue at the ministerial level. Moreover, Jordan might benefit from exporting only to the Syrian and Lebanese markets. Going through the Murak crossing in the north to reach Turkey would involve security challenges and customs fees from both the Syrian regime and the armed opposition.
The developments on the Nasib border crossing also prompted Iraq to accelerate opening its own border crossing with Syria. The Iraqi ambassador to Syria, Saad Mohamed Reda, announced on July 10 that al-Boukamal border crossing in the Deir Ezzor governorate on the Syrian side will reopen soon and connect once again with al-Qa’im border crossing in Anbar province on the Iraqi side. Reda also noted that there are plans to sign a strategic cooperation agreement between the two sides to strengthen bilateral relations. The Amman-Baghdad highway reopened in August 2017 after two years of closure—when IS controlled the Iraqi-Syrian border area—but Jordanian commercial trucks did not begin entering the Iraqi market until February 2018. Moreover, Iraqi authorities have recently begun building a security fence along the border with Syria to deny entry to smugglers and terrorists, which reflects the new security environment that traders will face moving forward compared to pre-2011 years.
On the Jordanian-Iraqi border, the Karameh crossing on the Jordanian side links to the Turaibil crossing on the Iraqi side. Jordan exported nearly $1.4 billion annually to Iraq before IS controlled the border area; this decreased to $424 million in 2016. However, such a level of trade was not restored even after one year of reopening the Amman-Baghdad highway. A daily average of only 120 trucks have passed through this crossing in recent months, compared to 700 before closing the border in 2014. The main challenge has been that Iraqi authorities have imposed high customs fees on their border with Jordan, discouraging Jordanian traders from going through al-Qa’im. This tit-for-tat in imposing customs fees is decreasing the trade volume between the two countries. Both sides are working to move beyond these issues; however, the current political impasse in Iraq is preventing any breakthrough on this front.
Moreover, there is an international aspect that might restrain the flow of trade in the Levant. The first major challenge is how to evade US and European sanctions imposed on the Assad regime since 2011. Russia has been supportive of an initiative by the United Nations rapporteur, Idriss Jazairy, to set up a working group to discuss the consequences of these economic sanctions on Syria. The restrictive western measures against the Syrian regime remain in effect, which might complicate Syria’s ability to do business with its neighbors. The measures also might impede Jordan’s ability to ship goods from Tartous. Uncertainty and potential for confrontation in southwestern Syria further impede cross-border trade, as do lingering questions about the political prospects of postwar Syria. These regional and international agreements will be crucial in deciding whether the Syrian refugees in Jordan will cross the Nasib border to return home and whether there will be enough security and political stability to restore normal levels of trade.
Normalizing Syrian-Lebanese-Jordanian-Iraqi relations appears to only be a matter of time. Reopening Syria’s border crossings for business with Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq will not automatically mean normalizing trade and political relations; to be sure, there are bilateral challenges ahead that might be difficult to overcome in the short and medium terms. Syrian authorities could impose customs fees as protection measures, as they are looking for new sources of revenue and for ways to subsidize their producers. Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon might face domestic and international pressure as they directly engage the Syrian regime to resolve these trade issues.
The imminent opening of Nasib could revitalize commercial trade activities in the Levant. However, the end of the Syrian war should not mean a return to business as usual. The Syrian regime is not taking concrete steps that reflect a tangible change of behavior. The United States and Europe can use the leverage of their sanctions on the Syrian regime to urge Moscow to pressure Assad. However, the regional dynamics might force a new reality as Syria’s neighbors are eager to restore trade and provide relief for their economies.