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Deeply Talks: Syria’s Border with Jordan

As Syrian and Jordanian officials ponder reopening the Nassib border crossing, Syria Deeply talks with Sam Heller of the Century Foundation about the sticking points and possible negotiations.

Written by Hashem Osseiran, Alessandria Masi, Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Jordanian border soldiers allow refugees at the Al Roqban camp in the no-man’s zone between Syria and Jordan to get medical attention during a media visit to the U.N. center for the humanitarian response. Photo by Jordan Pix/ Getty Images

BEIRUT – The border crossing between Jordan and Syria closed in 2015, but reports have been circulating since February about negotiations to re-open it. In Syria Deeply’s second Deeply Talks, we look into the changing situation among Amman, Damascus and Syrian opposition groups along the frontier and the possibility of reopening the Nassib border crossing between the two states.

Sam Heller, a fellow at the Century Foundation who recently returned from a reporting trip to Jordan, joined our editors Alessandria Masi and Hashem Osseiran to discuss the latest developments on that front.

Here are a few highlights of the conversation.

Opposition groups gained control of the border crossing in May 2015. The ensuing instability in the area, and the presence of extremist groups, led Jordan to close the Nassib crossing, a checkpoint southeast of Daraa.

“The Jordanian border seems locked up in a way that the [porous] Turkish border is not,” Heller said. “There is no regular civilian crossing over the border, and I think that Jordan’s last major refugee intake was in [2016] when they emptied out the Rukban refugee camp in Syria’s Badia desert. So the border is really kind of locked tight,” he added.

He clarified, however, that some representatives of Syrian opposition groups and civilian bodies had been allowed to move between Jordan and Syria through unofficial crossings in the Badia desert and in border areas in southwest Syria.

The closure of the border dealt a significant blow to both the Syrian and Jordanian economies. Beforehand, the crossing handled an estimated $1.5 billion of trade every year, though that figure dipped when the war broke out in Syria.

Heller said Damascus had been pushing for the reopening of the crossing because of its economic significance: Syria has no official trade routes open. It was economically important for Jordan too, because Syria had previously been the nation’s main outlet for agricultural exports to Lebanon and Europe.

When asked about current negotiations over the reopening of the Nassib border crossing, Heller said: “They don’t seem to have produced anything yet.”

The main sticking points, he said, were over customs duties and how they would be divided between the Syrian government and the various opposition forces. There are also discussions about administrative control over the border and whether it would be shared between opposition factions and the Syrian government or would be solely opposition-run, with maybe a government crossing in the interior of Daraa province with a road corridor through which shipments would pass.

According to Heller, more symbolic issues have figured in negotiations, including what flag would fly over the crossing, the release of detainees, and whether IDPs would be allowed to return to the handful of Syrian towns that have been converted to barracks for pro-government forces.

When asked what a government capture of the crossing would mean for Syrian rebels, Heller said that both symbolically and politically it would be sort of a loss to the opposition, especially as President Bashar Al-Assad continued to regain swaths of territory.

“But if there is economic gain [for rebels] to be had from this [reopening], then that is relevant,” he said.

Heller said the covert United States aid to between 10,000 and 37,000 rebels will be cut off in December, leaving these fighters without the paychecks they have been using to support themselves and their families.

“So, if there are customs, duties, for example, if there is money to be spread around for the border crossing, then this could help mitigate that. It could be positive in that sense,” he said.

Listen to the whole call here:

Deeply Talks is a regular feature, bringing together our network of readers and expert contributors to examine the latest developments in the Syrian conflict, with a view toward the long term prospects for peace building and stability.

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