A vendor works at a shop in the Jordanian town of Ramtha near the border with Syria. Image Credit: AFP

RAMTHA, Jordan: At the market in the Jordanian town of Ramtha hope is rising that the Syrian regime’s territorial gains just across the border might help bring business back to life.

Since war broke out in Syria more than seven years ago, the steady flow of goods coming across the frontier has dried up — coming to a complete halt when it was closed in 2015.

Those years of conflict have dealt a major blow to the economy of Jordan — dependent in large part on trade with its neighbour — and along the border the disruption has had a crippling impact.

Now an offensive by Syrian regime forces is seeing President Bashar Al Assad claw back territory in the southern frontier province of Dara’a.

And — despite once backing the uprising against his regime — stallholders and market traders in Ramtha say they are banking on the Syrian government to reclaim control and reopen the vital border.

“To begin with we supported the Syrians who wanted freedom,” said Nasr Makhadmeh, a shop-owner in his fifties.

“But we want to see the Syrian army retake all of Dara’a province.”

If the frontier opens and the stream of merchandise starts again then Makhadmeh says he is sure business will begin booming.

“The days of prosperity will return,” he told AFP.

“The markets will be inundated once more.”

The importance to Jordan of trade with Syria is underlined by the president of Ramtha’s chamber of commerce, Abdul Salam Thiabat.

“It used to bring hundreds of millions of dollars into the state coffers,” he said.

“More than 4,000 stalls [in Ramtha] depended on Syrian merchandise. And more than 2,000 families lived off the revenues of the roughly 2,000 taxis or vehicles that carried the goods across the border daily,” Thiabat said.

“If the Syrian state retakes control of the border and the crossing points then it will relaunch the economy of Ramtha in particular and Jordan in general.”

Overland trade between the two countries was worth more than $615 million (Dh2.25 billion) in 2010 but started falling after the conflict broke out and ground to a halt when the border was shut.

The goods that used to flow from the north have been replaced by products from China.

Food, clothing, fabrics and household items from thousands of kilometres away fill the shelves of some dozen shops in the historic market building.

But nonetheless the Chinese imports are no real substitute to fill the gaps left behind.

“The market is dead,” lamented 32-year-old baker Asser.

The Syrian conflict has taken a heavy political and economic toll on Jordan, a resource-poor desert kingdom that is almost entirely landlocked.

The regional turbulence sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings and the closure of the border with conflict-hit Iraq — another major trading partner — dealt further blows.

Jordan’s economy grew by less than two per cent in 2017, compared with more than 6 per cent annually in the five years before the war.

King Abdullah II may have once called for Al Assad to go and supported rebels fighting the regime, but his priority has always been to see the turmoil die down.

As the war has torn Syria apart, hundreds of thousands of refugees have sought refuge over the border — adding another major strain on Amman’s coffers.

And as Jordan struggles with an economic crisis, experts say it is clear its authorities now want stability and a functioning economy on its northern flank — even if it is under Al Assad’s rule.

“It is 100-per cent sure that Jordan prefers the Syrian army to retake control of the border and the crossing points and for them to be reopened,” said Oreib Rentawi, director of the Al Quds Centre for Political Studies in Amman.

The onslaught by Al Assad’s forces in Dara’a since June 19 has displaced more than 270,000 people in yet another wave of humanity.

Jordan has refused to let the tens of thousands of displaced camped along its border into the country, arguing it cannot cope with any more arrivals.

Instead it seems that the authorities are hoping an Al Assad win will resolve the situation across the frontier — and help solve some of Jordan’s problems too.

“One of the main causes for the economic crisis in Jordan has been the closure of the border with Syria,” said Ahmad Awad, director of Jordanian economic research centre Phenix.

Opening the border “will facilitate the return of Syrian refugees”.