JABAR, Jordan — What remains of the swarm of truck convoys that used to dot the key crossing between Jordan and Syria is a parking lot of stranded truckers, clueless as to what will happen next.
Fauzi Abdul Nabi, a representative from the First Army, a southern Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction, told Al-Monitor that moderate rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took control of the crucial border post of Nasib in Syria on April 1, after the president’s troops withdrew from the area.
Jordan has since closed its last official entry, called the Jabar crossing on its side, along the 370-km (230-mile) northern border it shares with Syria. Other crossings have been shut throughout the five-year conflict, but Syrian refugees are still met by the Jordanian soldiers at special checkpoints along the border.
One of the Middle East’s busiest trade channels, the route has been packed with caravans for millennia. Today, it connects Europe to the Middle East via Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Jordan’s Interior Minister Hussein Majali said April 5 that the country is ready to act even outside its territory in the event of an external security threat.
Amid mounting questions about the seizure of the post, FSA representatives told Al-Monitor that the takeover was a symbolic victory for the opposition. Nabi said, “We want to prove to the international community that [the FSA] is a reliable party to deal with in southern Syria.”
Initial reports that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra took over the crossing were promptly dismissed by the FSA, which said that the Islamists were instead to blame for the rampant looting merchants reported in the Jordan-Syria free trade zone following the capture of the border post.
“The FSA took over the crossing point. Then looting happened in the trade zone as civilians entered and took everything,” Mashal, 18, from the village of Jabar, told Al-Monitor.
Nabil Rumman, the president of the Jordan Free Zone Investors Commission, told Al-Monitor that chaos gripped the trade zone following the border takeover, with some 300 new cars and scores of heavy duty machines being carried into Syria. For Jordanians, the loss is a crushing one. The free trade zone handled $1.5 billion worth of goods a year, which plunged to $400 million in 2014 and is now at zero.
“We are still evaluating the value of the stolen goods — for now, it stands at about $150 million,” Rumman said.
Jordanian trade zone affiliates have started picking up the remains of what Rumman estimates are goods worth millions of dollars and channeling them to nearby safe areas inside the kingdom. An official agreement has yet to be forged with the Jordanian government to reopen a free zone under FSA control, but rebel sources said informal discussions were underway.
“I don’t know if the zone will be open again any time soon,” Rumman said, “because this is a political decision. We’re asking for compensation from the Syrian government for the losses, as the goods were stolen on the Syrian side.”
Meanwhile, the FSA has moved to return some of the looted goods to Jordanian parties.
On already rocky territory outside its borders, Jordan’s economy is facing devastating losses as a result of the closure. Rumman said, “Almost all the borders around us are closed. All exports are currently on hold and the general economic situation is deteriorating.”
Before the Syrian uprising, about 5,000 trucks used to make the cross-border trip each month. That number has plummeted to 100 over the last four years. According to the president of the Jordan Truck Owners Association, Mohammad al-Dawood, Jabar’s closure has brought what remained to a halt. He told Al-Monitor, “Since the uprising kicked off across the border in 2011, the sector has suffered losses that have exceeded 200 million Jordanian dinars [around $282 million]. This is on top of an additional 225 million dinars [$317 million] we lost in the last two years due to sloppy trade with Iraq.”
At the Nasib border crossing, Syrian drivers have camped around their parked trucks for more than a week. They are waiting for news, but are less hopeful as time passes. A Syrian driver who wished not to be named said he was in the middle of transporting humanitarian aid from the Red Cross into Syria when the border suddenly shut. “I came here and suddenly border police told us the crossing was closed, but when I left Syria the situation was normal at the post,” the driver told Al-Monitor. “The Jordanian government does not offer hotel accommodation, so I sleep and eat in my truck, a situation the other 35 drivers stranded here are in also.”
Abu Mohammed, another truck driver from Damascus transporting mattresses, said that the recent uptick in violence on the Syrian side of the crossing has made him and other drivers apprehensive about returning. Still, he said the unpredictable situation at Nasib cannot hold for long. “We think a solution will be found soon,” he said, “Because it is neither feasible nor logical for it to stay this way.”
Jawad Anani, a leading Jordanian economist and former deputy prime minister, told Al-Monitor that the kingdom has been hurling toward an economic quagmire as clashes rage across the border.
“When the area was safe, goods from Europe, Turkey and Lebanon would enter Jordan and go all the way to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states,” he said. “It was a lucrative source of income for Jordanians and the government.”
The analyst said that the passage was a crucial route for fresh produce from the Jordan Valley, one of the more reliable agricultural sources of Jordanian exports. But the flow of goods has stalled almost completely, possibly forcing merchants to rely on smuggling points along the border in the future.
With Jabar’s closure, he estimates private and government sectors in Jordan are losing $20 million to $30 million a day.
“This situation is very bad. The Ministry of Agriculture has convinced the Iraqi government to buy our vegetables and fruits to make up for the lost Syrian market,” he said. “But moving goods into Iraq from Jordan is very difficult, as truckers are asking for more money in light of the Islamic State threats they face along their route.”
One solution he sees is for Jordan to break into new markets, but this is not easy.
“Discussions might be underway with the Gulf states to buy more Jordanian goods, especially with Saudi Arabia,” he said. “With spring coming, the agricultural season is approaching and we urgently need markets to open up soon for the sake of the country’s economy.”
Alisa Reznick contributed to this report from Amman.