Wheeling and dealing

Moving between remote villages, glinting between patchwork fields of spinach, wheat and cotton, and parked decoratively in front of Byzantine ruins, motorcycles appear to be ubiquitous in Syria. They carry old men, adolescents, sometimes entire families, but the brightly coloured Suzukis, Hondas, Yamahas and cheap Chinese copies zip across the countryside only. Motorbikes were banned in Damascus and other major cities in 1981, after Muslim Brotherhood bikers carried out a number of hit-and-run assassinations of prominent Assad regime members.

This makes it all the more special to glimpse

the occasional much-repaired vintage model. The shiny Japanese and Chinese models, however, are easy to replace whole, and not because people can afford them at retail price.

Over the past decade, Syria has been accused of participating in a host of smuggling activities: oil from Iraq, fighters and arms to Iraq, agricultural goods to Lebanon, and weapons for Hamas via Jordan or for Hezbollah from Iran. Syria has even been accused of sending its own weapons to Sudan for safekeeping in case of international weapons inspections. But the most rampant and everyday illegal activity is the smuggling of basic commodities, foods, building materials, electrical appliances . . . and motorbikes.

While he was president, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, imposed a strict but stabilising economic self-sufficiency by permitting few foreign goods into the country. This began to change in the 1990s, when economic "reforms" made it easier for goods to enter Syria through Lebanon. Although the importation of most foreign products remains illegal, some goods, such as Coca-Cola, Marlboro and Nescafé, became openly available in supermarkets. The black market developed into an illegal parallel economy which grew after Assad Sr's death in 2000.

The black market is not only tolerated, but supported and run by senior state officials. Rami Makhlouf, President Bashar al-Assad's cousin and owner of half of the mobile-phone company Syriatel, owns all the duty-free shops in Syria. It is famously said that foreign companies cannot do business in Syria without going through him. He recently had Mercedes banned from bringing spare parts to Syria as he wanted to be the firm's exclusive agent but Mercedes preferred different Syrian partners.

For many of the less wealthy, smuggling is the only way to survive. Motorbikes are bought from China, driven into Syria from Lebanese border villages, and sold for $400 each. The smuggling network boasts a host of participants: taxi and bus drivers who carry the products, border officials who palm notes from the drivers and ordinary villagers on either side of the border.

Since the final withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005, there has been a crackdown on some of the minor smuggling on both sides. The cross-border military road, which bypassed customs control and was used for large-scale smuggling, has also been closed. People trying to enter Syria with televisions or bread are liable to be turned back or have their goods confiscated. But clandestine smuggling continues. The cheap and cheerful motorbikes are the more attractive symbols of a hypocritical system that thrives on a black-market economy and draws in everyone from humble villager to powerful businessman with government links. They represent, perhaps, an era that is fading fast.

This article appears in the 05 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, False dawn for democracy