Lebanese truckers remain locked out of vital trade routes despite opening of the Nassib crossing

Lebanese truckers remain locked out of vital trade routes despite opening of the Nassib crossing
The opening of the Jordan-Syrian border was hailed by traders, but the movement of goods across the border has not fully resumed due to security threats and high tariffs.
5 min read
26 October, 2018
The Nassib crossing was re-captured from Syrian rebels by Russian forces [Getty]
Ali Rifai is a truck driver and trader living in Amman, Jordan. He regularly runs a route between Amman and Kuwait, transporting zucchini, tomatoes, and other vegetables across the desert that separates the two countries.

But Rifai is not Jordanian - he relocated to Amman three years ago from his native Lebanon after Jordan closed the Nassib border crossing between it and Syria.

The 2015 closure, which followed the crossing being captured by rebels of the Free Syrian Army, cut off a lucrative trade route between Lebanon and much of the Arab world - one on which Rifai had long depended.

He moved to Amman to continue his work.

Last week, the Jordanian government officially re-opened the Nassib crossing. Lebanese farmers, industrialists, and officials all hailed the opening as a positive development for Lebanon's economy, but the regular movement of goods and trucks across the border has not yet fully resumed - and traders who relied heavily on the crossing before it closed have expressed concerns about high tariffs and a lack of security along the route that runs through Nassib.

Lebanon's politicians also remain deeply divided on how to deal with the Syrian government, and have so far been unable to reach a deal with Syria on the specifics of Lebanese trade through the border. 

"This border at Nassib and Jaber opened. I, as a Lebanese trader, do not benefit from this," Rifai told The New Arab.

"There is no transit shipping. There are high tariffs. Syria takes a lot of money from trucks carrying vegetables, and afterwards there is no way, there is no security for transit."
Syria's M5 motorway was once the preferred route choice of truckers heading from Lebanon to Jordan and down to the Gulf nations

In the week before the crossing opened, Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil met his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi, in Amman, in which Bassil stressed that he hoped the border would open as soon as possible.

Since the border closed, according to Lebanese customs data, the total value of Lebanon's exports to the Arab Gulf states and Jordan has witnessed a decline, with a general pattern of falling exports from Lebanon to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

"Exports have deteriorated since the war began in Syria seven years ago by around $1.5 billion, and it should have increased at least five percent per year, so the effect is more than $2 billion negative," Lebanon's Minister of Economy and Trade Raed Khoury told The New Arab.

"Given this information, we are looking forward for this border to open for us to be able to export."

Although most crossings between Lebanon and Syria have remained open for most of the war, Lebanon's access to trade with the rest of the Arab world has been severely limited by the Syrian conflict. 

Youssef and other truckers said the security situation has yet to improve to their liking

"This would be extremely important for us," Julian Youssef, freight forwarding manager at Lebanon's ELC Transport Services, told The New Arab. "Everyone who works here will start working again on this [crossing], and this [border opening] will increase our economy."

Youssef said the highway that passes through Nassib had been the cheapest and fastest route for cargo shipments before the civil war. But once the conflict began, transport became more dangerous, and on one occasion in 2014 drivers had to abandon their trucks near the Syrian-Jordanian border because of an Islamic State group attack.

Youssef and other truckers said the security situation has yet to improve to their liking.

He added that ELC currently has to ship its goods to the Gulf by sea, which is more expensive and time-consuming and has caused a downturn in business.

Imad Amoury is a fruit and vegetable distributor based in Lebanon who, like Rifai, used to use the Nassib route before 2015. He said most traders were continuing to ship by sea rather than use the newly opened crossing.

"I know that still not many people are using the route, and still they have not found the route to be suitable," he told The New Arab. "And the governments must help to clarify the situation, and of course the taxes must be lower for it to work."

The Lebanese government has hardly been united in its approach to Syria on the Nassib issue. Shortly after the crossing opened, Lebanese President Michel Aoun appeared to encourage the normalisation of trade in a tweet urging "everyone [to] take advantage of opportunities to support the national economy, the realisation of citizens' interests, and the consolidation of a unified national vision to boost the economy and meet the challenges of the current crisis".

Engaging in formal relations with the Syrian government risks drawing the ire of Lebanon's international allies and normalising the repressive regime in Damascus

Talks between Lebanese and Syrian ministers have been taking place, but according to sources quoted by Arab News these "are conducted on an individual level".

A source within the Syrian government told El Nashra after the crossing opened that this sort of unofficial communication was not enough, and broader negotiations on Lebanese access to Nassib were necessary.

But this has been divisive in Lebanese politics, and the stakes are high - engaging in formal relations with the Syrian government risks drawing the ire of Lebanon's international allies and normalising the repressive regime in Damascus.

But refusing to takes steps to open trade through the crossing may not be an option, given Lebanon's economic downturn.

"We cannot avoid talking to the Syrian government, because there [are] logistics, security issues, custom duty issues and other issues as well," Khoury told The New Arab. "So it is inevitable for us to talk to them and find solutions on the ground."

But a senior official in Lebanon's administration voiced frustration with Syria's approach to Lebanese trade, echoing similar statements made by individuals in the Lebanese government following the opening of Nassib.

"[The Syrians] are trying to create something to say, okay, come and sit with us," the official told The New Arab. "It's nothing new. It's a trade issue."

As Lebanon's politicians continue to figure out their approach to the trade route through Nassib, traders such as Rifai, Youssef and Amoury may have some time to wait to benefit from the crossing's re-opening.

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, covering everything from US national security to refugee issues in Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @Michal_Kranz