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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

At Jordan border, Damascus seeks to revive regional trade

Nassib border opens, but Syria still faces mammoth task to rescue battered economy

Vehicles cross from Jordan to Syria through the Jaber-Nassib border crossing after it was reopened between Syria and Jordan. EPA
Vehicles cross from Jordan to Syria through the Jaber-Nassib border crossing after it was reopened between Syria and Jordan. EPA

By reopening a key land crossing with Jordan this month, the Syrian regime is inching towards a return to trade with the wider region as it looks to boost its war-ravaged economy.

The government of President Bashar Al Assad took back control of the Nassib border post in July from rebels as part of a military offensive that reclaimed areas in the south of the country.

Syria's international trade has plummeted during the seven-year civil war, and its foreign reserves have been almost depleted.

The reopening of Nassib after a three-year hiatus on October 15 is a political victory for the Damascus regime, said Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group.

It is "a step towards reintegrating with Syria's surroundings economically and recapturing the country's traditional role as a conduit for regional trade", he said.

The Nassib crossing reopens a direct land route between Syria and Jordan, but also a passage via its southern neighbour to Iraq to the east, and the Gulf to the south.

"For the Syrian government, reopening Nassib is a step towards normalisation with Jordan and the broader region, and a blow to US-led attempts to isolate Damascus," Mr Heller said.

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International pressure and numerous rounds of peace talks have failed to stem the fighting in Syria, and seven years in the regime has gained the military upper hand in the conflict.

Mr Al Assad's forces now control nearly two thirds of the country, after a series of Russia-backed offensives against rebels and extremists.

Syria faces a mammoth task to revive its battered economy.

The country's exports plummeted by more than 90 per cent in the first four years of the conflict alone, from $7.9 billion to $631 million, according to a World Bank report last year.

The Syria Report, an economic weekly round-up, said Nassib's reopening would reconnect Syria with an "important market" in the Gulf.

But it warned "it is unlikely Syrian exports will recover anywhere close to the 2011 levels in the short and medium terms because the country's production capacity has been largely destroyed".

For now, at least, Nassib's reopening is good news for Syrian tradesmen forced into costlier, lengthier maritime shipping since 2015.

Among them, Syrian businessman Farouk Joud was looking forward to being able to finally import goods from Jordan and the UAE via land.

Before 2015, "it would take maximum three days for us to receive goods, but via the sea it takes a whole month", he said.

People show their stamped passports at Jaber-Nassib border crossing after it was reopened between Syria and Jordan. EPA
People show their stamped passports at Jaber-Nassib border crossing after it was reopened between Syria and Jordan. EPA

Importing goods until recently has involved a circuitous maritime route from the Jordanian port of Aqaba via the Suez Canal, and up to a regime-held port in the north-west of the country.

"It costs twice as much as land transport via Nassib," Mr Joud said.

Syrian parliament member Hadi Sharaf was equally enthusiastic about fresh opportunities for Syrian exports.

"Exporting [fruit and] vegetables will have a positive economic impact, especially for much-demanded citrus fruit to Iraq," he told Agence France-Presse.

Before Syria's war broke out in 2011, neighbouring Iraq was the first destination of Syria's non-oil exports.

The parliamentarian also hoped the revived trade route on Syria's southern border would swell state coffers with much-needed dollars.

Before the conflict, the Nassib crossing raked in $2 million in customs fees, Mr Sharaf said.

Last month, Syria's Prime Minister Imad Khamis said fees at Nassib for a four-tonne truck had been increased from $10 to $62.

Syria's foreign reserves have been almost depleted due to the drop in oil exports, loss of tourism revenues and sanctions, the World Bank says.

And the local currency has lost about 90 per cent of its value since the start of the war.

Lebanese businessmen are also delighted, as they can now reach other countries in the region by sending lorries through Syria and its southern border crossing.

Lebanon's farmers "used to export more than 70 per cent of their produce to Arab countries via this strategic crossing", said Bechara Al Asmar, head of Lebanon's labour union.

Despite recent victories, Damascus still controls only half of the 19 crossings along Syria's lengthy borders with Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Damascus and Baghdad have said the Albukamal crossing with Iraq in eastern Syria will open soon, but did not give a specific date.

Beyond trade, there is even hope that the Nassib crossing reopening might bring some tourists back to Syria.

A Jordanian travel agency recently posted on Facebook that it was organising daily trips to the Syrian capital by "safe and air-conditioned" bus from Monday.

"Who among us doesn't miss the good old days in Syria?" it said.