By the Associated Press
Two key Syrian border crossings reopened on Monday after years of war and violence — one with Jordan for commercial traffic and the other with the Israeli-held Golan Heights for U.N. peacekeepers — in a major boost to President Bashar Assad’s government.
The crossing with Jordan brought a promise of restoring trade and movement between the two countries. At the crossing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, U.N. observers were finally able to return, four years after they left the area because of fighting.
The simultaneous reopening was highly symbolic, reinforcing the Syrian government’s message that it is slowly emerging victorious from the seven-year conflict. It also restores a commercial lifeline to the outside world, via Jordan.
“We are now reaping the fruits of the beginnings of victory,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said of the reopenings, adding that the real victory will come when Syria recaptures its territory in full, citing areas in northern Syria including Idlib, still outside government control.
Al-Moallem’s Iraqi counterpart, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, underscored the need to boost relations between the two neighbors and said Syria must find its way back to the Arab fold. The two spoke at a joint press conference in Damascus.
“No one can marginalize Syria, and I raised the necessity of (Syria’s) return to the Arab League,” al-Jaafari said.
The 22-member Arab League froze Syria’s membership after the civil war erupted in 2011, followed by sanctions and the severing of diplomatic ties between the League and Damascus.
Nearly 450,000 Syrians have been killed in the war, and the country has been devastated by the violence that drew the involvement of foreign militaries of regional and international powers, as well as foreign militias and militants.
With crucial military assistance from Russia and Iran, the Syrian military has clawed its way back and recaptured key territory, including major cities, from the Syrian opposition in the past two years.
Al-Moallem vowed to move on remaining parts of Syria outside of government control, saying it is “impossible’ for his government to give up on the oil-rich part of eastern Syria, where U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces are in control.
He said the eastern banks of the Euphrates river will be his government’s next target after it resolves the situation in the rebel-held northwestern Idlib province.
A Russia-Turkey deal for Idlib has been reached last month, setting a demilitarized zone and a cease-fire in the province home to 3 million people. Al-Moallem said his country will give its ally Russia time to assess whether Turkey and the Syrian armed opposition have fulfilled their part of the cease-fire deal.
On Monday, the Syrian flag was raised at the Quneitra crossing between Syria and the Israeli-held Golan at a ceremony Monday.
U.N. observers and local notables from the Druze community, the predominant population in the area, gathered near the crossing. The U.N. observers had left the Quneitra crossing in 2014 for the first time since deploying there in 1974 to monitor a cease-fire and a demilitarized zone. Israel occupied the Golan Heights in 1967.
“It is a day of victory,” Youssef Jarbou, a Druze leader, told the Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV from Quneitra.
Syrian forces recaptured the Quneitra area in July. Russian military police deployed in the area, including on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, setting up checkpoints in the area. Moscow said it planned to work closely with the U.N. force.
Meanwhile, at the Naseeb crossing between Syria and Jordan, dozens of private cars lined up to cross from Jordan. Security personnel and dogs searched the vehicles.
“Today is a feast, a feast for the whole Arab and Islamic nations and for the whole World, this crossing is vital for the whole Arab countries,” said Mohammed Khalil, the first Syrian in line waiting to cross back into his country.
Naseeb’s reopening would bring major financial relief to Assad’s government by restoring a much-needed gateway for Syrian exports to Arab countries. The resumption of commercial trade through the crossing will also be a diplomatic victory for Assad, whose government has been isolated from its Arab neighbors since the war began in 2011.
Arab countries have boycotted the Syrian government since the early days of the war, freezing its membership in the 22-member state Arab League.
“The Naseeb crossing is a vital lifeline for trade between the two brotherly countries Jordan and Syria through them to other Arab countries,” Jordan government spokeswoman Jumana Ghunaimat said.
Syrian rebels seized the crossing in 2015, disrupting a major trade route between Syria and Jordan, Lebanon and oil-rich Gulf countries.
Syrian government troops recaptured it in July, after rebels reached an agreement with Russian mediators to end the violence in the southern province of Daraa and surrender the crossing.
The crossing is also vital for Syria’s neighbor Lebanon, providing its agricultural products a route to foreign markets.
The recapture of Naseeb marked a major victory for Assad’s forces, which have been on a winning streak since 2015 when Russia threw its military weight behind Damascus. The victory in southern Syria signaled the return of his forces to Daraa province where the uprising against him began seven years ago.