Twelve years of civil war in Syria had a great impact on the relations between Syria and the Arab world. When Syria was suspended by an overwhelming majority of Arab League members in November 2011, few expected the war to last more than a decade before Bashar al-Assad could once again take control. This war affected the neighbours of Damascus the most, and Jordan was directly affected by it in terms of economy, trade, security, and refugee crisis.
It is known that Syria is the “economic lung” of Jordan. Syria acts as a corridor for Jordan because it is Amman’s access point to Europe and Lebanon. Syria provides Jordan’s land connection with Europe through Turkey, and in the meantime, the importance of access to the Mediterranean Sea cannot be ignored. The Nasib border crossing is the connection between Syria and Jordan, and its importance, apart from its impact on the trade between the two sides, for the economy of the local people of northern Jordan, and the reduction of social discontent cannot be ignored.
The Nasib crossing was closed in April 2015 and reopened on October 15, 2018, after partial security was restored. This continued until restrictions due to Covid-19 again limited the crossing, and it was finally fully reopened on September 29, 2021.
Statistics show Jordan’s exports to Syria were 286 million before the crisis in Syria. This volume decreased by 76% and reached 67.8 million dollars after the crossing was closed in 2016. This figure reached 118.32 million dollars in 2021 (the year of the full reopening of the crossing). This year, Jordan’s total exports were $13.85 billion, and exports to Syria accounted for about 0.9 per cent of Jordan’s total trade. A year ago in 2020, and despite a 46% decrease in Jordanian exports compared to 2021, Syria was Jordan’s 28th export market among 166 countries. This shows the importance of the Syrian market for Jordan.
The increase in exports to Syria was related to Jordanian King Abdullah’s efforts to negotiate with US President Joe Biden as he allowed trade with Syria in 2021 despite the Caesar Act. An act that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had denied Jordan.
In addition, before 2011, residents of northern Jordanian cities made a profit from their livelihood by smuggling some goods that were cheaper in Syria. The Jordanian government was trying to close its eyes on this smuggling of goods to reduce public dissatisfaction, unemployment, and poverty in these areas.
In 2010, for example, Jordanian border officials allowed each driver to bring seven cartons, each containing 200 cigarettes, into the country. Amidst the situation in Syria and the reduction of smuggling by the residents, the income decreased, and they protested. According to the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Ramtha in north Jordan, in 2017, some 4,500 out of 5,500 stores closed in the city, most of them having traded in Syrian goods. In this aspect, trade with Syria will be significant for Jordan.
The increase in exports to Syria is not the only advantage of Jordan’s neighbourhood, but it also has negative consequences. Trade in arms and drugs, and the increase in their use is one of the aspects of the socio-political crisis of Syria on Jordan, which has also taken a political aspect in recent years. At the same time, Jordan has become a transit destination for drugs – typically Captagon – for the countries of the Arabian Peninsula.
Statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, based on official Jordanian figures, indicate that the number of cases tied to drug possession and trafficking by nationals and foreigners in Jordan rose from around 6,000 per year in 2005–2012 to 119,000 in 2020, an almost 1,900 per cent increase. Saudi Arabia is a profitable destination for such a volume of Captagon. The kingdom reported seizing 48.6 million tablets of Captagon in 2012. In 2020, Saudi Arabia seized some 140 million tablets, while in 2021 the number reached around 200 million, with most confiscated tablets originating from Syria or Lebanon.
Leading in the limiting role
Jordan has become the scene of confrontation between Iran, the West, and the Persian Gulf countries. This is the critical point of Jordan’s situation, which has become the front line of Iran’s regional competition and the resulting geopolitical threats, despite having more than 360 kilometres of common border with Syria.
The history of the connection between Iran and Jordan on the common border with Syria dates back to 2018 and the liberation of these areas by the Syrian regime and Russia. Until 2021, Russia did not allow Iran and Hezbollah to move freely on the common borders of these points, but the war in Ukraine caused Russia to gradually withdraw from the border, and Iran and Hezbollah gradually replaced it.
Before the gradual reduction of Russia’s presence, King Abdullah said in an interview with the Hoover Institute that Russia’s presence is a “source of calm” and the vacuum [Russia in Syria] will be filled by the Iranians and their proxies. It only took three years for this to happen. In August 2021, Hezbollah joined the regime in securing the Garz Prison in Daraa. During the same period, the Syrian government handed over the prison for Hezbollah operatives, and many Hezbollah-owned drones conducted surveillance over the Syrian-Jordanian border. In 2022, Iran and Hezbollah operatives, which previously only accompanied the Syrian Army, became an integral part of these units, even replacing them.
After that, Iran strengthened its presence in southern Syria by getting rid of opponents, installing friendly officials in local security and military bodies, recruiting people into the drug trade, spending resources through charity organizations, and buying up real estate. By supporting its proxies, Tehran contributed to the insecurity of Jordan’s borders, and there are reports that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah support the weapons and drug trade to Jordan.
Iran’s presence near Jordan’s northern borders, in addition to insecurity and increased smuggling, causes Israel’s reaction and its retaliatory attacks near Jordan’s borders and turns this country into a military and security conflict scene for foreign parties. In addition, the attacks of Iranian proxies on Al-Tanf, the US military base in Syria, which is less than 50 kilometres from Jordan, will involve the US in this retaliatory war, and geopolitical threats for Jordan become security threats.
The war in Syria has expanded beyond Jordan’s capacities, and although Amman can make partial arrangements with the Syrian regime in some bilateral relations, some effects are beyond Jordan’s powers. It seems that Jordan deserves financial support and the provision of facilities to reduce the effects of the insecurity situation in Syria, as it has appeared as a bulwark for Arab countries and the US.