JABER, Jordan — The ancient road to Damascus that passes through here, a route plied by traders for thousands of years, is now severed. The government border crossing between Jordan and Syria has been sealed after the heavy fighting, barrel bombing and wild looting that took place last week at the checkpoint and nearby trade zone.
The crossing, which was captured on the Syrian side by moderate rebel forces, was the last official gateway between Jordan and Syria along their 230-mile border. War had already shut the others. Refugees from Syria can still cross through special one-way checkpoints manned by the Jordanian military. But the ordinary movement of goods and people between the countries is finished, and Jordanian officials said it is unlikely to resume anytime soon.
This week, the last few miles of four-lane Jordanian highway to the Syrian frontier were deserted, except for sheep grazing on the spring grass and lines of stranded truckers trying to get home to Syria. On the other side of the border, Syrian truckers were held hostage by rebels for several days, and their loads were ransacked.
Billions of dollars in goods once passed through the gates here, a crucial link in what was a vital trade network that ferried vegetables, electronics, marble and steel between Europe and the Middle East via Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The war in Syria and its spillover have ended this.
The loss of the last official gateway between Syria and Jordan is both symbolic and serious — not only a blow to trade, it has also left many Jordanians with a feeling of being encircled and confined. For Syrians, it is worse.
“It’s a huge deal,” said Yusuf Mansur, a Jordanian economist. “It is suffocating us.”
Commanders of the pro-Western, politically moderate Free Syrian Army boasted to reporters last week that their capture of the crossing denied the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad control of the southern frontier.
“We dealt a blow to the last symbol of sovereignty of the regime along the border,” Abu Hadi al-Aboud, a Free Syrian Army officer, told Reuters.
Jordan’s interior minister, Hussein Majali, told parliament Sunday that the area was now secure and that Jordanian troops would stop any spillover violence. He called reports of looting “exaggerated.”
According to accounts by Jordanian officials and witnesses, elements of the Free Syrian Army dislodged troops loyal to Assad from the border crossing Wednesday night after several days of heavy clashes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad’s air force dropped a number of barrel bombs on nearby villages. Why the Assad forces withdrew after years of working to secure the route, and what exactly the rebels gain by choking off a border crossing, are unknown.
Early Thursday morning, members of a rival militia faction from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra briefly took control of the nearby Jordan-Syria free trade zone and opened the gates to locals. The zone was filled with automobiles, construction steel, electronics, foreign cigarettes and lumber, among other items.
“I saw men pedal their bicycles into the free trade zone and drive away in brand-new Land Rovers,” said a Jordanian insurance broker who watched the siege from a nearby hilltop.
“They stole 350 vehicles, plus cranes, forklifts, bulldozers,” said Nabeel Romman, president of the Jordan Free Zone Investors Commission.
He estimated losses at $100 million and counting. He said looters stole anything they could carry or drive away.
“My managers came back and found they had taken the furniture,” Romman said. “They’re sitting on the floor.”
Free Syrian Army units regained control of the zone and also now stand guard on the Syrian side of the border. An order of sorts has been restored.
“But the route is closed,” Romman said. “We won’t send trucks to Damascus through the rebels.”
Romman said that before the civil war in Syria, the free trade zone handled $1.5 billion in goods a year, an amount that fell to $500 million last year. It is now zero.
He and other business leaders said the closure of the border is not a death blow for Syria or Jordan, but a deep cut.
“Look at a map of the Middle East,” Romman said, referring also to Jordan’s shared borders with Israel, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. “We live in a circle that is closing.”
Syria is now shut. Western Iraq is controlled by Islamic State militants, and though truck traffic is still possible, the drive has been called one of the most dangerous in the world, a virtual Mad Max movie come to life. Israel is experiencing a mini-boom in trade with Jordan, much to Jordan’s disadvantage — shipping costs to Israel’s port in Haifa are expensive, business leaders say.
The shuttered crossing was particularly important for Lebanese farmers and traders. According to the head of the farmer’s union in Lebanon, 65 percent of agricultural exports to Persian Gulf states passed through it.
“It seems that the only option still available to exporters is to switch to shipping by sea,” said Hamza Meddeb, a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “This is much costlier and would almost certainly lead to a fall in trading activities.”
A Syrian trucker named Abu Mohammad sat this week beside his rig at the closed crossing and wondered if he would ever get home. He had hauled a load of Syrian chocolate cookies to Jordan and was returning with pallets of cardboard.
Asked if he thought the gates would open again for trade, he answered, “No.”
Hugh Naylor in Beirut contributed to this report.