On July 7, the United States, Russia, and Jordan announced that they had reached an agreement on a “de-escalation zone” in southern Syria. “I think this is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria,” said U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
As major fighting fades from the south and it becomes increasingly clear that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power, new factors come into play, including economic needs. Syrian, Jordanian, and Lebanese business communities have been pushing for a resumption of land trade through the Nassib border crossing, which has been closed since 2015. If the Syrian-Jordanian border were to be flung open again, the political signal would be no less significant than the economic effect.
Jordan and the Southern Rebellion
It was in the southern border city of Deraa that the Syrian uprising first began, as Assad’s forces gunned down demonstrators in March 2011. Protests, crackdowns, and armed clashes slowly degenerated into a full-scale civil war over the course of autumn and into 2012.
Toward the end of that year, Saudi-funded arms shipments found their way to rebels in the south and caused a spike in the fighting, which sent a stream of refugees across the Jordanian border,setting off alarms in Amman. The kingdom began to adjust its strategy, aligning more clearly with the anti-Assad camp, but it also demanded that its partners show greater respect for Jordan’s security needs. Backed by the United States, Jordanian security forces clamped down on unauthorized arms smuggling and began to regulate, then restrict, refugee movement across the border. By late 2013, Jordanian intelligence had helped set up a joint operations room in Amman to coordinate Gulf and Western support, including by providing salaries and weapons to CIA-vetted, Amman-friendly groups in the so-called Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella term used to signify foreign-backed non-jihadi rebels.
Jordan’s strict policing of the border wasn’t without its lapses and failures, but it generally succeeded in preventing southern Syria from replicating the Islamist free-for-all that emerged in the north, where Turkey ignored or facilitated the growth of hardline groups. Jordan and its allies gained considerable influence over the insurgency along its border, where rebel commanders grew dependent on the largesse flowing through Amman. But while the southern rebels were pliable enough, the Jordanians gradually discovered the limits of their political usefulness and, over time, Amman’s own interests shifted.
The Nassib Crossing
Jordan’s approach to Syria has also been informed by economic calculations, and more so now that political motivations are fading away along with the idea that Assad will resign. Amman’s desire to improve Jordan’s own tottering economy as well as that in southern Syria, in order to encourage refugees to return home, has brought into focus the single most important piece of economic infrastructure on the border: the Nassib crossing, a checkpoint southeast of Deraa that corresponds to the Jaber crossing on the Jordanian side.
Before 2015, Nassib saw a steady stream of southbound trucks from Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon, often carrying European imports, and trucks coming the other way with cargo from Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states. Nassib also included a border-straddling free trade zone in which transit companies and industrialists had been allowed to set up shop under very favorable terms. Before the fighting began, the crossing is said to have handled $1.5 billions worth of trade per year, though by 2014 that sum had dropped to $400 million.
Nassib was seized by anti-Assad rebels in a March-April 2015 operation supported by Jordan, the United States, and their allies, but fancy plans laid in Amman did not long survive contact with the reality of Syria’s rebellion.
State backers were dismayed to learn that terrorist-listed jihadis had led the charge, and once the crossing had been captured, discipline among the Amman-backed FSA factions broke down completely. As rebel fighters rampaged through the free trade zone, villagers poured in from the surrounding countryside to join in the looting: companies, factories, and storage facilities were stripped bare and vandalized, with cars and movable goods carted off into Syria while truck drivers hoping to cross were kidnapped. Adding to the damages, the Syrian air force struck rebel positions at the border.
Jordanian business representatives later claimed that 100–150 million U.S. dollars’ worth of property was lost in a matter of days, and the crossing has been closed since then.
The Nassib debacle, along with a botched offensive on Deraa City, made Jordan and its allies rethink their approach. The Southern Front FSA factions were reasonably effective at undermining Assad, but the insurgency was a blunt instrument and the rebels seemed unlikely to be able to govern large populations, run cities and provide services, or, for that matter, function as a firewall against jihadi infiltration. Jordan’s disenchantment with the Southern Front came at a fraught moment for the opposition, with the kingdom already refocusing its attention on the menace known as the Islamic State and other rebel backers starting to adopt an anti-terrorist posture at the expense of their original regime change ambitions.
When Russia intervened in Syria in autumn 2015, Amman finally knew which way the wind was blowing. Rather than trying to counter-escalate, the Jordanian government opted for damage control and reached out to Moscow to secure an informal truce along the border. Since then, the south has been much calmer than before, without dramatic changes in the frontlines. Fighting continues in the Golan Heights region and in Deraa City, and spasms of violence occasionally erupt elsewhere, but all sides have gradually adapted to the new reality of a mostly frozen conflict in southern Syria.
Continuing Economic Pain
The winding-down of the southern war has drawn attention to the mutually hurting stalemate that reigns at the Nassib crossing, which remains closed. Control over the crossing seems to be divided between several different Southern Front FSA factions, with the largest of them, known as the Revolution Army, holding the free trade zone. The closest Syrian government position is in Khirbet Ghazaleh, some fifteen kilometers to the north.
The closure of the border in 2015 had a punishing effect on the Syrian economy, especially since Assad’s army also lost control over the Tanf border crossing into Iraq. From spring 2015, Damascus was left without any overland access to Jordan or Iraq, or to what lay beyond: Iran, Egypt, and the Arab Gulf. Officials and businessmen tried to facilitate exports by air or sea, but could not compensate for the lost land trade.
Lebanon, which lives off transit trade through Syria to the wider Middle East, also suffered. Lebanese overland exports were slashed in half in April 2015, when the rebels stormed Nassib, and the country lost fully three quarters of its overland exports in 2014-2016.
Jordan still had open borders with Israel and Saudi Arabia, but its foreign trade registered significant dips in 2015 and 2016. Exports to Iraq could be re-routed over Saudi territory, but still shrank by two thirds. For the Syrian-Lebanese trade, there was no such second-best option. “There is no future here, it’s finished,” a despondent Iraqi businessman told a reporter in 2015, as he oversaw the dismantling of his soft drink factory in the now defunct Syrian-Jordanian free trade zone at Nassib. Some 5,000 trucks that used to ply the transit routes were now out of business, and Jordan’s border towns saw their jobs, services, and markets wither away.
Though the Jordanian economy suffers from many different ills, the border closures have contributed to keeping growth down and unemployment up, feeding fears of social instability and Islamist radicalization. In June 2017, Jordan’s official unemployment hit 18.2 percent, which is its worst figure in a quarter century.
Some have tried to find a silver lining. “Jordan is gaining strategic importance,” Professor Hillel Frisch of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University told the Jerusalem Post in April 2015, insisting that Jordanian “losses in trade are being offset by its increasing strategic importance to Saudi Arabia and Gulf states.”
Alas, it turns out you cannot eat strategic importance. Once the southern conflict had been turned down to manageable levels in 2015 and 2016, Jordan began to pursue pragmatic security arrangements along its borders and to seek the restoration of Syrian and Iraqi trade.
Plans to Reopen the Border?
Last week, Jordan and Iraq finally reopened the Trebil-Karameh crossing that links Amman and Baghdad, two years after the Islamic State forced it shut. Keeping the long desert road safe from jihadi attacks will be a handful, but both Jordan and Iraq hope that a resumption of overland trade will help resuscitate their economies.
According to rumors swirling in the Arabic press and among Syrians, Amman’s next move will be to open the Nassib crossing, which would be an offer Assad cannot afford to refuse.
Whether a decision has been made on the matter or not, Jordan has been signaling its interest in resolving the border problem for some time. On December 30, 2016, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces, Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat, made conciliatory statements and hinted that the northern border could be reopened for trade once the Syrian army secured the other side.
When the Russian-American-Jordanian de-escalation deal was announced on July 7, a commitment to reopening the border was understood to be part of the package—but no one seemed to know exactly how or when it would happen. One reason was that the deal had been publicly announced before details were properly hashed out, apparently on the urging of U.S. President Donald Trump, who wanted something to show the press after his first meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Since then, regional media has been abuzz with speculation. Most of the rumors have focused on Nassib, but there is also talk about a new crossing close to the Sweida Province, and it is possible that some more complex arrangement may be under consideration.
On August 15, Deraa Provincial Governor Mohammed Khaled al-Hannous denied that any date had been set for a resumption of trade, refuting comments made by a Lebanese politician.
Later that month, Jordanian Information Minister Mohammed al-Momani praised the ceasefire agreement and noted that ties between Damascus and Amman are headed for improvements, comments which have since echoed throughout the Syrian and Jordanian media.
“Now, if the situation in southern Syria continues, God willing, to move toward stability, it will lay the foundation for a reopening of the crossings between the two countries,” Momani said. However, he added that it is “very hard” to set a timetable, and appeared to suggest that a reopening of Nassib was contingent on continued stability and respect for Jordanian red lines, which include keeping Iran-backed Shia militias away from its border.
While Momani was careful not to say that the borders will open anytime soon, pro-Assad voices have been keen to portray the issue as a done deal. On August 29, the Damascus-friendly Lebanese daily al-Akhbar claimed that an agreement is already in place, and that the Nassib Crossing will soon be reopened under Syrian government control in return for the release of 130 prisoners.
Opposition sources are just as quick to contradict such claims. Al-Bayraq al-Mafaalani, a media official in the Sunni Lions FSA group, which maintains a presence at the border, recently said there was no deal yet and, even if there were, the damaged and dilapidated state of the Nassib crossing would not allow for a rapid reopening. Still, other rebel sources told the al-Yaqin news site that the border will reopen in October under a deal that mandates Jordan-approved FSA groups like the Sunni Lions and the Revolution Army to escort cargo trucks through a rebel-held corridor until it reaches army lines, with traffic collecting at a new, state-run customs control in Mesmiya, half-way between Deraa and Damascus.
For now, confusion reigns. But while the timing and practical arrangements may still have to be worked out, Jordan is clearly ready to consider the Nassib issue. In fact, Amman seems to be dangling the border question before Assad as a potential quid pro quo for a continued ceasefire and respect for Jordanian interests, including its concerns about Iranian-backed militias and the kingdom’s desire to see refugees return into Syria. Those are terms Assad can probably live with, at least for now, and unless relations start backsliding again or the ceasefire collapses, it seems likely that the border will reopen sooner or later.
If or when it does, it will be a significant event. A resumption of trade would bring relief to many Syrians, Jordanians, and Lebanese and is likely to be widely welcomed on those grounds. But reopening the border would also send a political signal about the Syrian government’s rehabilitation—and while this is music to Assad’s ears, Jordan will have to step gingerly to avoid provoking a political backlash.