The Jordanian government has not made any formal request to sit at the negotiating table with the Syrian side to establish a mechanism to reopen the crossing point despite previous statements indicating the readiness of the Jordanian and Syrian sides to reopen the crossing of Naseeb-Jaber.
Yet, it is likely that the strategic crossing point would be partially open soon due to the recent developments in South of Syria and the visits of Jordanian businessmen that have paved the way for resuming trade ties via the crossing.
The Syrians have completed the maintenance of the international highway between Damascus to Dera’a and the Syrian-Jordanian border after removing rubble and war debris in preparation for opening the border crossing to export and import movement.
In three months, many Jordanian business delegations visited Syria to facilitate resumption of trade exchange.
Two conflicting streams in Jordan
In Jordan there are two streams: The first supports opening the borders and the other rejects the idea for security reasons.
Though it sounds there is no Jordanian rush to open the Naseeb-Jaber crossing under the pretext that Jordan has not received a formal Syrian request to open the crossing, and that there is a dire need to scrutinize political, security and logistical conditions before opening the crossing which was closed in the middle of 2015 and restored by the Syrian Army August 6, 2018.
The Jordanian economy calls for instant opening of the border to resume the pre-war trade activity in order to revive both Jordanian and Syrian economies.
Syria politicizes border opening
In parallel with these developments, Jordanian transport and trade companies have urged both governments to open the crossing with Syria because of its economic importance. However, Syrian Minister of Transport said in a press statement early August that his country is ready to open the borders with Jordan immediately and in early September he said that his country is not in a rush to open the borders. This shows that Syria is politicising the resumption of full trade and economic relations with Jordan.
This is attributed not only to who benefits from such resumption of trade across the border, but rather to political pretexts. As the borders were open until middle of 2015, the reason behind the closure was from the Syrian side as the crossing fell under the control of military opposition which made it difficult for Jordan to keep the borders open as Amman rejects dealing with non-state actors.
The crossing is a lifeline for both countries’ economies and a gateway to long-standing relations. It is in the interests of both countries and people to open the crossing and restore trade in a way to revive relations between the two brethren states at all levels.
Some Jordanian politicians believe that the Syrian side should take the first initiative by calling the Jordanian government to resume trade activities in order to open the crossing because it was closed due to military and terrorist activities on the Syrian soil, not on the Jordanian soil. As the whole area is now safe and under the control of Russian and Syrian security and armed forces, this provides the best terms and conditions to resume trade to bail out both countries’ economies.
The crossing is a lifeline for both countries’ economies and a gateway to long-standing relations. It is in the interests of both countries and people to open the crossing and restore trade in a way to revive relations between the two brethren states at all levels.Shehab Al Makahleh
The Syrian side, whose forces are still working to clear the southern areas of the remnants of terrorist groups, is organizing its security and political presence in Dara’a province, which has been out of government for seven years. As for Syria, it seems that the opening of the crossing must take place in the context of a package of political normalization and security understandings.
There is no problem for Jordan in terms of understandings and security arrangements, and channels of communication in this field are open anyway but Jordan has political caveats, which are linked to Amman’s openness to Damascus.
What slows down the opening is merely technical. Experts from both sides are currently assessing the means to streamline trade exchange. Some Jordanian politicians believe that there is no political obstacle to the opening of border crossings with Syria in the near future because it is a mutual interests to restore the momentum of economic relations that help bail out Jordanian economy which is suffering a major recession at present.
The Jordanian side has the right, as it did with Iraq, to request security guarantees for the movement of its citizens on the road between the Syrian borders and cities, and to ensure that the conditions of the land transport service are available at the crossing. These are manageable conditions. The two governments and the competent security agencies should go ahead with these measures because any security threat or incident would nip all bids to fix political and economic ties in the bud.
From the Jordanian side, there are many issues that need understandings, mostly resulting from years of war and Syrian asylum, as well as the return of refugees, which is of interest to both countries. Any anticipated return of Syrian refugees from Jordan will be through the crossing and in a legitimate manner and in full coordination with the Syrian government.
At the same time, Jordan has a legitimate concern about the infiltration of terrorists through the crossing camouflaged under Syrian passengers. Amman fears that Syrians would enter the Jordanian territory in greater numbers for economic and trade activities.
These issues should be addressed by both countries as the opening of the crossing will be a prelude to a new era in bilateral relations between both governments. This is the difference between the state and people’s perspective vi-a-vis opening the borders.
This situation is different regarding Jordanian businessmen and economists discourse when tackling the Naseeb-Jaber crossing. About 200 businessmen have participated in Damascus International Fair, for the first time since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, which reveals the new Jordanian priorities, and the difference in tone between the Jordanian government's statements and those of businessmen.
However, it is almost certain that the traffic between the two countries will gradually return before the end of this year. During this period, the Syrian armed forces will have recovered all areas of south Syria and provided the necessary security guarantees for passengers from and to Damascus. The signals are various, starting from Russian statement following the tripartite summit in Tehran and in the aftermath deal between Russia and Turkey on Idlib.
The resumption of transport through Aleppo, Lattakia and Aleppo, is a key item in the Sochi deal. The reopening of the two international routes is scheduled before the end of 2018. This indicates that this is an essential part of the agreement and has due importance to provide the necessary protection for these two international routes.
Washington-Moscow to give the green light?
On September 20th, Moscow announced that it has been closely working with Washington on evacuating refugees from the Al Rukban Camp, bordering Jordan to the territory controlled by the Syrian army.
Though the details have not been discussed so far, the evacuation will be in two stages: First evacuation of refugees from the camp to territories controlled by the Syrian army, then the refugees will be escorted by the UN humanitarian convoys from these territories to their new shelters. That is why it is a must for Jordan to push forward to open the Naseeb border crossing to ensure the mass return of Syrian refugees.
Amman-Damascus channels have not been severed at all during the years of the Syrian crisis, and despite the cessation of direct political contacts, military and security coordination has never terminated.
At present, Jordan has a broader view of the future of relations despite the deterioration of confidence that accompanied the years of the crisis. However, prospects for a resumption of trade between the two countries, at least in the first stage, should not be raised in view of the difficult circumstances currently facing the two governments.
It is true that the security situation in Syria has not yet stabilized completely, and the world is now focusing its attention on the anticipated battle of Idlib, and the repercussions thereof in light of the turbulent American stance towards the Syrian conflict.
On the other hand, the remnants of terrorist groups in other parts of Syria continue to pose a threat to all countries bordering Syria, requiring full cooperation at all levels among the countries of the region to rid Syria of terrorist groups, especially foreign ones.
By then, one of the top Jordanian priorities in the next stage is to facilitate the return of the Syrian refugees to their homes after field surveys had revealed that a good proportion of the Syrian refugees in Jordan are almost convinced to return.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.