Foreign Policy Blogs

The Border Guard and Basha

One of the themes that repeatedly pops up when trying to “figure out” Syria is the contrast between where Syria has been, and where it is going. You see this division everyday. Old, decrepit services fighting for space on the road with modern buses. Older, covered women sharing the sidewalks with girls in plunging neck lines and tight designer jeans. Well, I encountered another of these sharp cleavages between tradition and the future upon my recent return to the country.

Anyone who has traveled to Syria will tell you that border crossings can be a nightmare. Understaffed and parochial, each crossing is an island unto itself where a traveler can easily become lost for hours. If the proper etiquette is not followed, if the i’s aren’t properly dotted and t’s properly crossed anything up to the denial of admission can be the consequence.

Need Grease the Wheels? In Syria you'll have to pay

Need to Grease the Wheels? In Syria you'll have to pay

You learn pretty quickly how to navigate the process. Sharpen those elbows, fill out your paperwork, be polite and persistent. And, if you’re in any kind of hurry, be prepared to pay. This option is largely eliminated for Americans, as diplomatic relations between the two countries remain tense. However, pretty much anyone else has the option of bribing their way across the border. In Arabic this process is called Baksheesh and its a well established way of greasing the wheels in otherwise inefficient situations like border crossings. Baksheesh is endemic in Syria, especially at the border. It has become such an engrained part of the system that many speculate the Israeli team that assassinated Hezbollah figure Imad Mughniyah here in Damascus in February, 2008 were able to penetrate Syrian borders by bribing their way in. This report from the Golbal Integrity Report via Syria Comment discusses the general state of Syrian corruption, as well as border and customs issues specifically.

Well this is another glaring example of Syria’s past. However, there is a future that is changing to some degree. Syria has been making real inroads on the international tourism market. According to the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, via Syria Today, 2009 saw a 12% increase in earnings from tourism over 2008, reaching $7bn (329 bn SYP). That trend is continuing as, through May 2010, Syria has seen an additional 1.2 million visitors as compared to the same period of 2009, an increase of 65%. These numbers are not lost on the Syrian government, and efforts are underway to improve infrastructure in the tourism sector.

This divide was on full display when I found myself at the Bab Al Hawa border crossing this past week. At first all was normal, lots of travelers in a sort of frenzied state trying to enter, or leave, and a few border agents in no particular hurry at all. I sat down and waited as my passport was being handled by the bus agency I was traveling with. To my surprise I was soon joined on my bench by a young, smiling Syrian woman speaking to me in passable english.

We introduced ourselves, her name was Basha, and it turned out she was from the ministry of tourism. She was conducting surveys in an attempt to find out where people were going, what they wanted from their stay in Syria, and to gauge their level of satisfaction with Syria in general. Aside from her confusion over my answers to her questions (you’ve been in Syria how long mister?) Basha was exceedingly friendly and helpful. After we finished with the survey questions we struck up a bit of a conversation and discovered we have several friends in common. Not only did I like Basha personally, but her efforts reflected the positive elements of the Syrian tourism industry. A sign of things to come.

Basha and I wrapped up our pleasantries and I proceeded to the desk where the bus agent was dealing with a Syrian border guard. Having my passport out of sight always makes me nervous so I waited at the desk in case I needed to answer any questions. While I was waiting a shared taxi driver broke in with his passengers papers. He also made the sloppiest and most conspicuous attempt at an “under the table” bribe I’ve ever seen. The past again.

I don’t know exactly what was said as my Arabic is pretty bad, and I wasn’t taking notes at the time, but I still feel pretty confident I got the jist.

Taxi driver: Here is the bribe. (hands border guard 700 syp)

Border Guard: Oh, thanks for the bribe. (stands up and puts 700 syp into his pocket)

Taxi Driver: So you can get my passengers visas and entry stamps right?

Border Guard: Oh no, sorry, only visas here. (sits down)

Taxi Driver: Oh, well, where do I go to get the entry stamp? And how much will it cost?

Border Guard: Visas are 500 syp, entry stamps are 200 syp

Taxi Driver: Oh, well, can I have 200 syp back so I can bribe the other guy? (extends hand)

Border Guard: (stands up again, takes money out of his pocket, searches for the 200 syp) Here is your bribe money back, take it to window 4

Taxi Driver: Thanks.

Border Guard: You’re Welcome. (sits down again to work on my passport)

The most BLATANT bribery I can remember. Ever. I’m sure there have been worse cases that involved more money, and more important issues than a border crossing, but I was stunned. All of this took place in the open, with the Bus Agent, myself, and several other people standing RIGHT THERE. Not even the most basic attempt was made to hide or conceal the bribe. It was as nonchalant as if the border guard were selling a pack of gum.

We’ll see which side wins out. Of course this is about a lot more than if people have to pay bribes to get their entry stamps in Bab Al Hawa. The entire Syrian economy has a version of my friend the border guard. Often, businesses will be made up of a partnership. One partner is the brains behind the operation, the man with the plan. The other is the one with connections, the fixer who pays the bribes and makes sure the business can operate smoothly. The paying of bribes and other forms of corruption is factored into the cost of doing business here.

Corruption’s consequences are countless when it is this widespread. From a domestic standpoint it breeds unfair practices of all sorts, and rots out the enforcement of the rule of law from the inside. From an international standpoint the issue becomes where does all that bribe money go? In my example at the border it goes directly into the guard’s pocket. But in larger cases, the ones that make fortunes, that backsheesh has legs. Often, it supports the kind of groups and causes that are at the heart of why Syria is still being sanctioned by the US. If the Syrian government is really serious about a rapprochement with the US, and the west more broadly, tackling the issue of endemic corruption should be at the top of the list.

In other words pick Basha.



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.