QUNEITRA, Syria (AP) — President Bashar Assad's government received a major boost Monday as Syria's commercial gateway with Jordan and a crossing with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights manned by U.N peacekeepers were reopened years after the war disrupted their operations.
The simultaneous reopening of the crossings was celebrated on state media with back-to-back coverage, reinforcing the government's narrative that it is slowly emerging victorious from the seven-year war.
"We are now witnessing the early fruits of victory," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said at a press conference in Damascus. Sitting next to his Iraqi counterpart, who was visiting on Monday, al-Moallem said the two countries are discussing reopening a border crossing.
"No one should isolate Syria," Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's foreign minister, said, adding that he was advocating for Syria's return to the Arab League.
Assad's government has been largely isolated by its Arab neighbors since the civil war broke out in 2011. The 22-member Arab League froze Syria's membership shortly after the war began, imposing sanctions the cutting diplomatic ties.
Commercial delegations converged on the Naseeb crossing with Jordan on Monday, and members of the Syrian chamber of commerce went into Jordan to meet with their counterparts. The first truck carrying citrus fruits entered Jordan, and dozens of private cars drove into Syria.
"We are brothers. Our economy is connected to the Syrian economy," said Abdel-Salam Theyabat, the head of a Jordanian chamber of commerce.
At the Quneitra border crossing, leaders of the Druze community, which straddles the frontier, were first on the scene to attend the flag-raising ceremony. A plaque announcing the re-activation of the crossing was signed off with "Mercy to the martyrs and to Syria victory and peace."
Humanitarian and community leaders said they hoped the crossing would soon be open to trade and movement of students.
The Druze community was divided when Israel occupied the Golan Heights in 1967. U.N. observers had monitored the frontier since the 1974 cease-fire deal, but left their posts in 2014 as fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces approached.
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. On Monday, Russian officers were on the scene.
The opening of the crossing is a "signal of the return of stability to Syria and the failure of the efforts to divide the country," said Syrian army Brig. Mazen Younes.
The commercial crossing with Jordan promises to restore millions of dollars' worth of trade. Syrian vegetables and fruits will find their way to the Gulf, Turkey and Arab markets more easily, and construction and raw materials will find a faster route into Syrian cities and towns devastated by the war.
Once one of Syria's busiest, the Naseeb crossing was closed in 2015 when it fell to rebel hands, disrupting a major trade route between Syria and Jordan, Lebanon and oil-rich Gulf countries. Before the war, an average of 7,000 trucks went through daily, according to some estimates. Lebanon's President Michel Aoun has praised the agreement between Jordan and Syria to open a main border crossing between the two countries, saying it will benefit the country whose imports to the Gulf had been hit by the closure.
Government troops recaptured Naseeb in July, after rebels reached an agreement with Russian mediators to end the violence in the southern province of Daraa and surrender the crossing.
Jordan government spokeswoman Jumana Ghunaimat said the Naseeb crossing is a vital lifeline for trade between the "two brotherly countries."
"Today is a feast, a feast for the whole Arab and Islamic nations and for the whole world," said Mohammed Khalil, one of the first Syrians to cross back into his country from Jordan.
Syria's war has killed an estimated 450,000 people and drawn in regional and international powers, leaving entire towns and neighborhoods in ruins. Aided by Russia and Iran, the Syrian military has clawed its way back and recaptured key territory from the Syrian opposition in the past two years.
Al-Moallem said "real victory" will come when Syria recaptures its territory in full, citing areas in the north including Idlib province, still outside government control.
A Russia-Turkey deal for Idlib was reached last month, setting up a demilitarized zone and a cease-fire in the province, which is 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
He 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 parts of eastern Syria held by U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led forces. He said that would be the next target after the government resolves the situation in rebel-held Idlib.
Akour reported from the crossing in Jordan. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.