Retired Syrian contractor Omar Jawdat boarded an all but empty 8am bus from Amman to Damascus to visit his relatives this week.
Coach services between the two cities resumed for the first time in years in October — part of Amman's rapprochement with President Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Jordan hopes the warming of relations will pave the way for further regional normalisation with Damascus.
Arab countries largely ostracised the regime for its bloody suppression of initially peaceful protests against five decades of Assad family rule in 2011.
But despite the improving ties, Mr Jawdat was one of only five people — including the driver — on the bus, which has a seating capacity of 120.
“If you are older and can pay the required bribes on the roadblocks, they let you go,” Mr Jawdat says, referring to regime checkpoints on roads to his home town of Tal, located north of Damascus.
Those on the bus revealed that beyond a pickup in commercial traffic in recent months, normalisation with Damascus remains fraught with difficulties and more complex than simply opening land borders.
Tal was one of several Sunni suburbs of Damascus that became a rebel enclave after the protests turned into a violent revolution by the end of 2011, plunging the country into a devastating civil war.
Mr Jawdat fled with his family to Jordan when the outgunned rebels in Tal surrendered to the regime in 2012 to spare the town from further air strikes and shelling.
On this journey, Mr Jawdat's son, Akram, bid him farewell as the old, Chinese-made bus left from central Amman. He was 15 when the family fled Syria and is wanted for conscription in the regime’s military, which is dominated by Syria’s Alawite minority.
His case is similar to hundreds of thousands of young members of Syria’s Sunni majority in exile in Jordan and elsewhere as the civil war enters its 11th year. Many Sunnis see themselves as being cannon fodder for the Syrian military.
“I would love to go back, but not to be sent to the army,” Akram says.
Before 2011, buses between Amman and Damascus were filled with students, suitcase traders and tourists. Hundreds of taxis operated daily between the two cities, often carrying many passengers at a time to different locations. Today, however, only a few dozen are in operation, ferrying a handful of people.
The journey used to take four hours, including lengthy stops at immigration and customs on both sides. Today, it takes even longer because of an amalgamation of formal and informal barriers on the Syrian side, line operatives say.
Progress is significantly faster when Russian forces are present because their Syrian allies show more discipline, they say.
With urging from Russia and tacit approval from the US, Jordan resumed high-level contacts last year with Syrian officials.
A ban on Syrians entering Jordan was subsequently eased as were other restrictions that had curbed trade between the two sides.
To an extent, potential commercial benefits have driven Jordan’s policy of accommodation towards Mr Al Assad, while the regime aims to shake off its status of regional pariah.
But the two sides have also taken measures that have undermined cross-border trade flows, despite their avowed interest in seeing a robust exchange.
Coronavirus rules undermine traffic
It is difficult, for example, for Syrian travellers to obtain security clearance unless they have close relatives in Jordan, transport agents say.
In December 2021, Jordan required all incoming travellers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test. The requirement will cease as of March 1, after Jordanian hotel owners blamed it for a sharp drop in tourism.
The test costs $100 in Syrian regime areas — four times the monthly minimum wage.
When Abdullah Hamad, another passenger on the 8am trip, took the same bus in October, he says it was almost full.
“The measures have become overly complicated and expensive,” says Mr Hamad, a Jordanian who was travelling to visit his Syrian mother's relatives in the Sunni Maydan neighbourhood of Damascus.
A stringent customs regime on the Jordanian side of the border has also made it less worthwhile for Jordanians to travel and buy much cheaper meat and vegetables in Syria, where the national currency has collapsed over the past decade.
Hakam Smadi, a taxi driver on the route, said the Jordanian side “has become very protectionist".
“No one brings anything anymore because they would have to throw it away,” he says.
The Syrian pound is trading at about 3,500 to the dollar, compared with 2,400 in the same period last year. In March 2011, 50 Syrian pounds bought one dollar.
Other Syrian goods have become more expensive or their quality has declined.
A hardware shop owner next to the bus company said he used to pay bus and taxi drivers to bring sweets from Damascus, but with many Syrian refugees in Jordan having started their own businesses, he no longer buys from Syria.
“The sweets in Jordan have become better,” he says.
But official statistics show that bilateral trade picked up sharply in the last few months, as did shipping through Jordan to Syria.
The latest official Jordanian data shows that exports to Syria from January to November last year rose 59 per cent to $71 million compared with the same period in 2020.
Syrian exports to Jordan rose 39 per cent over the same period to $63m.
Bilateral trade volume remains much lower than 2010, the last year before the revolt, when annual two-way trade reached $655m.
Deifallah Abu Aqoula, head of the Jordanian Association of Owners of Clearance and Transport Companies, told The National that fees on transit freight through government-controlled areas in Syria have surged in the past few years.
A spike in marine shipping rates from Asia to the Mediterranean has meant that container movement by land became profitable last year, with freight moving from the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba to Lebanon through Syria.
“Container costs through Syria would have been prohibitive if it was not for the spike in marine shipping,” Mr Abu Aqoula said.
He said at least 7,900 containers were transported on Jordanian lorries from Aqaba to Lebanon and Syria in the past 14 months.
Some of the containers also went to the Syrian port city of Latakia, where many shipping lines had stopped operating because of US sanctions enacted in 2019 — a response to reported regime atrocities against civilians.
Before the bus left central Amman, the four passengers huddled around a gas heater at the transport company office before boarding. It has been a particularly cold February in the Levant and Syrian government-controlled areas are experiencing widespread shortages of fuel and electricity cuts.
The bus driver was from Idlib, the Syrian governorate largely held by anti-Assad forces.
Asked if any of the passengers he has been ferrying to Damascus were taking the bus to return permanently to Syria, the bus driver said “no”.
“Why would they?”