A truck ferry route to Jordan was launched this week almost days after Lebanon’s major transit route through Syria came to a complete halt, the Sidon Chamber of Commerce announced Tuesday.
Mohammad Saleh, the head of the chamber, said the first roll-on-roll-off ship headed to Jordan five days ago and arrived Monday. He added that a second ship would be leaving for Jordan in the next few days.
“The escalation of the Syrian crisis and the difficulty of shipping Lebanese products through the country ... forced us to launch this initiative to open a route,” a statement by the chamber said.
“Lebanese trucks will be able to continue their trips [to destination countries] on the regular land routes,” it added.
The situation on the road between Damascus and Amman deteriorated rapidly Monday, prompting Jordan to close its main Al-Jaber border crossing with Syria, after fighting intensified in the area between the Syrian Army and rebel fighters.
The step marked the first border closure since the revolt against President Bashar Assad started more than two years ago, Reuters reported.
The crossing, which is a key gateway for Lebanese trucks heading to the Gulf Cooperation Council, was also vital for other transit routes between Turkey and the Gulf, before the Syrian conflict escalated.
Antoine Howayek, head of the Lebanese Farmers’ Association, praised the step, which he said was very positive but only came after months of procrastination by the government.
Howayek said the cost per truck for the trip to Aqaba would be $2,000, which he said was higher than the cost of land shipment.
“But this [the price] is understandable given the situation of the road,” he added.
Howayek said the Turkish operator of the ship had agreed to lower the price from $2,700 per truck, following mediation by the chambers of commerce and several ministries.
But the relatively high price of the shipping will harm the competitiveness of agricultural produce, Howayek said, adding that the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon should offer subsidies to exporters.
“A subsidy of $1,000 [per truck] would boost the competitiveness of Lebanese produce to normal in the Gulf Cooperation Council, where competition has been increasing for several kinds of produce,” he said.
Howayek said a study by his association showed that at least four ships would be needed for the sea transportation to become a full alternative to the Syria route.
Asked whether mediation with Syrian authorities succeeded in allowing citrus and banana to be exported to the Syrian market, Howayek said resumption was unlikely given the measure was in retaliation for attacks on Syrian fuel oil trucks earlier this month.
Dozens of farmers protested over the weekend against the decision in Qassmieh, near the southern city of Tyre, warning it would negatively affect their livelihoods.
While the Farmers’ Association estimates that Lebanon’s agricultural exports declined by more than 1 percent in 2012, the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon estimated that exports under the IDAL subsidy program grew by 14 percent last year, when transit routes through Syria remained largely open for Lebanese truckers.
Howayek does not expect the road to reopen soon.
“It is really important that we continue putting contingency plans, plans that deal with the closure of the Syrian borders before exporters. At least for now,” he said.
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