Reopening of Jordanian-Syrian border seen as sign of normality
Although towns are no longer battlefields, many Syrians remain reluctant to return
People wait with their vehicles to cross Jaber-Nassib border crossing to Syria from Jordan on October 29th. A total of 344 refugees were said to have returned to Syria early this week Photograph: Andre Pain/EPA
The reopening of Syria’s border with Jordan and the national museum in Damascus are seen by Syrians as signs of normality after seven years of civil conflict and proxy warfare among international and regional powers.
The Russian defence ministry’s office co-ordinating repatriation says 344 refugees returned to Syria from Jordan early this week. While 50,000 Syrian refugees have gone home from Lebanon since the beginning of this year, few of the 1.2 million living in Jordan, including 670,000 registered with the United Nations, have repatriated.
Once the Jordanian-Syrian border crossing opened, refugees began to go home. A recent poll showed 18 per cent were prepared to return as soon as the crossing, closed in 2015, resumed operations. Most remain reluctant to return in the short term although their hometowns and villages are no longer battlefields and are under government control.
UN high commission for refugees spokeswoman Rula Amin said the “end of fighting is not the only consideration. They have to think when they go back: where will they live? Will they have a roof [over] their heads, is their house still standing, will they be able to work, will their kids be going to school, is there water and electricity, will they be safe?”
While Damascus has issued an amnesty for draft dodgers and army defectors, men of military age who have not fought against the government could be conscripted. Those who have joined armed opposition groups fear arrest and detention. In some cases, women and children are returning home ahead of the men in their families to enable them to assess the situation.
Meanwhile thousands of Jordanians have crossed into Syria to visit “Hamidiya mall”, Souq al-Hamidiya, the 18th century Ottoman covered market in the heart of Damascus’s Old City. Jordan has modern malls but not historic souqs.
A Damascus hotelier said Jordanians are coming for tourism, to eat in restaurants and stock up on items that are cheaper in Syria than in Jordan. Shared taxis, minibuses and lorries laden with goods are plying traditional routes.
Jordanians as well as Syrians have been cooped up by war. Syrians have had only one land exit to the world, via the Lebanese border. While the Syrian border has been closed Jordanians have been able to travel by land only to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and, with permits, Israeli-occupied territory. The opening to Syria means they can also go overland to Lebanon.
The reopening of the Syrian national museum amounts to a vote of confidence in the capital’s security arrangements. World-renowned antiquities on display there and in provincial museums were removed in 2012 and kept in secret locations in order to protect them from bombs and prevent the wholesale looting that took place at Iraq’s museums during the 2003 US invasion of that country.
Syria’s culture minister Mohamed al-Ahmad argued the reopening of the museum demonstrated that the country’s cultural heritage had not been destroyed by “terrorism”, although ancient sites have been savaged and pillaged by Islamic State and other armed groups.
The historic souq at the heart of Aleppo was severely damaged during fighting between government and opposition forces while two 2,000-year-old temples were brought down by Islamic State, also known as Isis, in the ancient trading city of Palmyra. Former antiquities head Maamoun Abdulkarim said the temples can be rebuilt as the stones remain on site but looting at other locations is extensive.