Syrian Civil War: Search for alternative trading routes

The agreement with Jordan is the latest in Turkey’s search for an alternative to the land route through Syria.

Jordan''s King Abdullah II, right, meets with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
Jordan's King Abdullah II, right, meets Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at the royal palace in Amman, Jordan, in March 2016 [AP]

Few eyebrows were raised when Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced the inauguration of a new maritime link between the Turkish port of Iskenderun in southern Turkey and Jordan’s Aqaba port during his recent visit.

The new “Ro-Ro” (roll-on, roll-off) route will enable Turkish lorries laden with goods and produce to travel by ship from Turkey to Jordan, where they will disembark and drive to lucrative export markets in the Gulf.

What is the reason for this complicated and expensive itinerary? It is obviously the impossibility of traditional land passage through war-ravaged Syria.

“The Aqaba port is strategically important for us,” Davutoglu explained. “We want to take advantage of Ro-Ro transportation between Iskenderun and Aqaba in the aftermath of the crisis in Syria and Iraq.”

Historical connections

Throughout the Middle East, traditional ways of doing business across once-peaceful borders managed by functioning states have been upended by revolution, anarchy, and war.

In response, countries and middlemen are creating new avenues for trade.

Syria is at the heart of these new developments, which are reshaping the way in which business is conducted throughout the region.

Historically, Bilad al-Sham – the area that spans from the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean all the way to east of Euphrates River – has been a critical crossroads for trade and commerce.

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What was the just-liberated Palmyra after all – an economic meeting point in the otherwise trackless desert linking the Arabs of the Mediterranean coast to markets as Far East as China and India.

One need only look at a map to see how important the overland route through Syria to Jordan is for Turkey’s modern trade links to markets in the region. At its height, more than 100,000 Turkish trucks crossed the country each year on their way to markets throughout the region.

The fighting in Syria, however, has destroyed this critical link.

Safe and reliable passage through Syria was one of the first casualties of this war. It simply became too dangerous, if not impossible, to bring goods safely though the Syrian labyrinth.

A window of opportunity

Wars destroy, but they also create opportunity.

There are some unlikely winners and losers in this new era. Israel – long-isolated from its Arab hinterland – sees economic opportunity in Syria’s destruction.

But also Egypt and places as far afield as Djibouti and perhaps even Gaza – where discussions about a new seaport have resurfaced in recent months – are poised to benefit by creating different economic links in this new Middle East.

While certainly better than nothing, the maritime options remain far more expensive and politically risky than the time-tested route through Syria. There is simply no win-win scenario to compensate for Syria's destruction.


Faced with it this predicament, Turkish traders are anxious to preserve economic links with traditional markets. And to safeguard the livelihoods for thousands who profit from this trade, they are experimenting with a number of alternatives to the closed route through Syria.

A maritime convoy linking Turkey to the Gulf via Israel was the first alternative route to begin operation.

For a time, Turkish lorries rolled on to ships in the Turkish port of Mersin for the overnight passage to Haifa, where Turkish drivers simply drove off the ships and proceeded in convoy to the border crossing with Jordan at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge.

According to an Israeli security official who wants to remain anonymous, for a time Gulf states refused to admit lorries that had crossed Israel. Instead they were required to make a time-consuming and expensive “back to back” transfer to local Jordanian trucks before proceeding to markets in the Gulf.

This route looked like a “win-win” solution to the economic crisis created by Syria’s closure to overland trade.

In some respects the popularity of the route was itself a barometer of the on-again, off-again relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

According to the same Israeli source, political pressures opposed to the route increased, as did doubts about its economic benefits, and it was stopped altogether by Ankara in mid-2015. Passage was only recently reactivated, and currently serves fewer than 30 trucks on a once-a-week voyage.

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Egypt during the Morsi era was eager to cement relations with Erdogan’s Turkey. So much so that it offered subsidies to Turkish exporters to send their goods through the Suez Canal.

Fees for passing through the canal, however, remained prohibitive for Ro-Ro voyages between Iskenderun and Saudi Arabia’s port of Duba.

And Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government, little interested in cultivating Erdogan’s goodwill, discontinued Egypt’s transit agreement with Turkey.

Viable alternatives

The just-announced Ro-Ro agreement with Jordan is the latest in Turkey’s continuing search for a politically and economically viable alternative to the land route through Syria.

Mediterranean Exporters Association head Bulent Aymen called the voyages between Aqaba and Iskenderun “a lifesaver for exports”, especially perishable fruits and vegetables.

Lebanese exporters to the Gulf find themselves in a similar predicament to those in Turkey. When the last crossing point between Syria and Jordan at Nassib was closed a year ago, the fate of no less than 65 percent of Lebanon’s agricultural exports, and the livelihoods of thousands of farmers, was put at risk.


Three months later the government agreed to subsidise a maritime route to Gulf markets for Lebanese exporters at a cost of $21m for 2015, increasing the share of exports handled by the port of Beirut to more than half of the national total.

While certainly better than nothing, the maritime options remain far more expensive and politically risky than the time-tested route through Syria. There is simply no win-win scenario to compensate for Syria’s destruction.

Palmyra will undoubtedly be rebuilt, but the facsimile version will be a pale shadow of the original. So too the various options devised to compensate for the safety and security lost in Syria, Sinai, and countless other locations throughout the Middle East.

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.