In the past decade, the war in Syria has reshaped not only the country’s own border peripheries, but also those of its neighbors. In few places has the impact been more painfully felt than in the northern Jordanian city of Ramtha, located only 10 kilometers away from the southern Syrian city of Daraa.
Before 2011, Daraa and Ramtha were tied together through trade relations. Daraa supplies goods to Ramtha, which in turn became a hub for the sale of Syrian products in northern Jordan. A decade on the two cities have different stories to tell. Deraa has seen the Syrian war suck all economic life out of the city, while the closed or only partially reopened border with Syria has helped to impoverish Ramtha, which relies heavily on cross-border trade.
Active in the cross-border trade were Jordanian drivers who worked the route between Ramtha and Deraa. These drivers, known as bahhara, or “sailors” in Arabic, embodied the vulnerability of border communities as well as the resilience of cross-border relations. Being a bahhar is a culture unto itself, a profession that involves techniques and attitudes passed on from father to son. These include courage, sharp-wittedness, and a native ability to navigate through border crossings and deal with the border authorities.
The cross-border business of the bahhara was built on the different market, labor, and production conditions in Syria and Jordan. Most goods were cheaper in Syria and in high demand in Jordan. This provided the drivers with an ideal opportunity to profit by buying products in Syria and reselling them in Jordan.
On a normal day, a trip to Daraa and back took a few hours. Soon after passing the Ramtha-Daraa crossing, Jordanian drivers found themselves shopping in Daraa’s numerous rest stations (istirahat), which offered many goods sought by Jordanians. While the bahhara rarely ventured deeper inside Syria, goods did travel from Syria’s interior to Daraa before being transported into Jordan.
As one Jordanian trader explained, “[Before 2011] I used to go to Aleppo to buy goods. After making my selection, I would tell the producer to ship them to Daraa’s rest stations.” In essence, Daraa was not just a market, but a “port” for export to Jordan thanks to the “sailors.” Why ship directly from Aleppo to Jordan when delegating the job to the bahhara meant faster door-to-door service, and most importantly provided a cheaper option?
According to official Jordanian data, just before 2011 there were some 800 cars licensed to work on the Syria route, most of them from Ramtha. They drove legally registered cars but their business was not entirely legal. On paper, their job was to transport passengers from different Jordanian cities to Syria, which they often did. But the real profit was in transporting Syrian goods on their way back. Some played it safe and transported small amounts—sweets, cigarettes, or cleaning agents—toward which the authorities turned a blind eye.
This petty trade became more lucrative when drivers brought in more than the tolerated amounts while paying low or no customs duties. This practice created a major informal economy before 2011. Although it cost the state in import revenues, it was tolerated because it generated economic activity in Ramtha. The bahhara took pride in earning income without relying on Jordan’s bloated public sector, while also bringing cheap goods to the market. Moreover, they made Ramtha a hub for redistributing Syrian goods throughout Jordan. Azraq, a small town near the Jordanian-Saudi border, was one such destination. The rest stations in the town offered Syrian cheese and sweets, among other goods, to those traveling to Saudi Arabia.
Decades of cross-border trade created strong commercial relations that sometimes turned into friendships and were even inherited by young bahhara. Despite the war and destruction of Daraa and closed or restricted Syrian-Jordanian borders, these relations remained resilient and allowed drivers to cope with new circumstances. For example, after traveling to Daraa became risky for the bahhara in 2011, Syrian traders would bring the requested goods into a restricted area within the customs’ premises. In that way, Jordanian drivers could pick up their goods without having to venture into Daraa.
However, resilience and creativity also had its limits. In 2013, it became very difficult, if not impossible, for Jordanians to cross into Syria, beginning a five-year interruption until the border was reopened in late 2018. In the meantime, southern Syria, especially Daraa Governorate, faced considerable physical, economic, and social destruction, as well as the displacement of capital and human resources. Syria was no longer the same place. Nonetheless, when the borders reopened—only the Nassib-Jaber crossing, as the Daraa-Ramtha crossing remained closed—trade resumed and old relations were even revived. One driver noted that “Daraa [city’s] rest stations had moved to Nassib [city]. Yet the first traders who welcomed us there in 2018 were from Daraa. We could even take goods with credit, as in the old days. Over time we made new contacts.”
If some of the old relationships survived, the business environment had radically changed. Goods still came from different parts of Syria, though the quantities were smaller and the delays longer. Entering Syria was not that difficult, coming back, however, became increasingly nightmarish. The Syrian customs were characterized by the absence of the state, as one bahhar put it. This meant that corruption and near lawlessness were rampant, as the crossing was one of the few economically active places in Syria allowing pro-regime militias to make money. As one bahhar described the new situation, “Before  we gave custom officials a tip. Now those controlling the crossing want a share of our income.”
On the Jordanian side, matters were smooth at first, although the Jordanian authorities increasingly took tougher measures. Intentionally or not, this made the bahhara’s trade hardly profitable. Jordan was pressured by the United States not to facilitate trade relations with Syria. The kingdom also faced security challenges such as drug and weapons smuggling, while the customs service was working at a lower capacity. All this forced Jordan to alter its border policies, thereby creating more obstacles for the bahhara.
The consequence of these developments was that economic activity again dried up in Ramtha, eventually leading to unprecedented social unrest in August 2019, less than one year after the reopening of the Nassib crossing. The coronavirus crisis that hit the region in March 2020 compelled Jordan to close the border again, without popular objection. Ever since, the bahhara, and by extension the people of Ramtha, have waited impatiently for the day the border will reopen.
Today, Ramtha’s sailors find themselves without a sea. Yet their story shows how when given the slightest opportunity they are capable of reigniting old ties, creating new ones, and capitalizing on the market differences between Syria and Jordan.
This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.