Jordan, Syria private sectors relaunch ties

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An undated photo of the Jaber border crossing between Jordan and Syria. (Photo: JNews)
AMMAN — Ten years after the start of the Syrian refugee crisis and in the midst of an economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jordan may be opening up its economic relationship with Syria.اضافة اعلان

President of the Jordanian Chamber of Commerce (JCC) Nael Al-Kabariti met with Syrian Chargé d’Affaires Essam Niyal on March 30th, according to Petra News Agency. The two discussed the economic and trade relations between the two neighboring countries.

“The relationship between Jordan and Syria is a long, historical relationship, with lots of economic ties. Syria for Jordan is the point where we connect to Europe,” said Al-Kabariti in an interview with Jordan News.

“We used to export our products to Syria, Turkey, and Europe. We used to import from Syria too. So this would be very important for Jordan. We’ve been trying to work to get back to the old relationship.”

Likewise, Tarek Sami Khoury, a Jordanian businessman and former Member of Parliament, emphasized the shared culture between Jordan and Syria. “Our populations are practically twins, as they share a common cultural and social history, with so many families linked by marriage and other solid connections,” Khoury said in a message to Jordan News.

“But more importantly, Jordan today can become the main outlet for Syrian land exports since Turkey is practically closed (to Syria) and Iraq is not very stable. Likewise, Jordan can also boost its economy by contributing to the rebuilding of Syria through the provision of basic needs and raw materials,” Khouri said, describing open economic relationships between the two countries as “a necessity and an inevitability, not a mere luxury.”

“Jordan is our gate to the Saudi market, and we are Jordan’s gate to the European markets,” said Fares Al-Shehabi, chairman of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry and former member of the Syrian parliament, in a message to Jordan News. He said that the only obstacle to trade is “the pressure some Western embassies put on the Jordanian government to block (it).”

However, economic relationships with Syria must proceed carefully to avoid running afoul of the American Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, signed into law by former US president Donald Trump in 2019. The law, which imposes a variety of sanctions and travel restrictions, aims to “send a clear signal that no foreign business should enter into business with or otherwise enrich” the Syrian regime, according to the US Department of State.

“We are not dealing with any national companies. We are doing business with the private sector, so we are not violating any rules,” said Al-Kabariti. “We are looking to our brothers in Syria as human beings. ... It is not right to have people living in Syria, who cannot find anything to eat,” he said. “We are the private sector, we are not interfering in politics.”

Kais Zayadin, former Member of Parliament, said that he hoped Jordan’s US allies could make “some exceptions” to the Caesar Act to protect Jordan from sanctions.

He explained that, Jordan’s situation “is different than that of a country for example in Europe; they don’t need relations” with Syria. “But in Jordan, they’re on our northern border, it is vital for us and it is vital for our economy and the Syrian economy.” He added that “the stability of Syria is very important for the stability of Jordan.”

Historically, the private sector and the government in Syria have been intertwined. Bashar Al-Assad’s first cousin, Rami Makhlouf, was reported to personally control 60 percent of the Syrian economy by the Financial Times in 2018.

Amr Al-Azm, a professor of Middle Eastern history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio with extensive experience in Syria, explained to Jordan News that “depending on which area or sector, (businesses in Syria) tend to be monopolized by entities or individuals who essentially are connected to the regime.”

However, Al-Azm said that opening trade with Jordan likely would not run into sanctions from the Caesar Act. “The sanctions are mostly focused against financial transactions. It’s to ensure that reconstruction is not started in a way that benefits the regime and rewards it for its behavior,” he said. “A little trade with Jordan is not going to make a big difference.”

He explained that opening trade can provide a much-needed economic stimulus for Jordan during the COVID-19 crisis.

As for the Syrian government, a renewed economic relationship could “protect the idea that it’s back in business, it’s in charge, things are better,” as well as demonstrate its control over its southern border with Jordan, said Al-Azm.

Al-Azm also added that a renewed relationship with Syria, inspired by the belief that, “Things may be stabilizing in Syria”, according to Zayadin, may also enable Jordan to encourage the return of Syrian refugees.

Al-Azm disagreed with the idea that sanctions, such as the Caesar Act, and the resulting loss of trade with countries like Jordan are the root of poverty and shortages in Syria. He stressed that Syria’s infrastructure and people’s livlihoods are destroyed by the war rather than the sanctions.

Khoury, meanwhile, said that “a political strategic decision has to be taken in Jordan to open up and restore full diplomatic and commercial relations. I do not see any other obstacles to reviving this historic relationship.”