WHY ARE some of the leading figures who gather around President Bush talking about attacking Syria? After all, Syria voted on the UN Security Council last year to support the anti-Iraq Resolution 1441. It also sent 17,000 troops and 300 tanks to support the US in the war against Iraq in 1991.
However, for some of those involved in the Project for the New American Century, Syria is not a completely reliable ally. This is particularly important in the Middle East, a key part of the world because of oil and Israel.
Syria, at least verbally, stands up strongly for the rights of the Palestinians. When Tony Blair visited the Syrian leader, President Assad, just over a year ago Assad publicly defended Palestinian suicide bombers as 'resistance fighters' and condemned civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
Assad has also not smashed the Hezbollah movement, which opposes Israel. As a result, says the US State Department website, 'The US continues to have serious differences with Syria. Syria has been on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism since the list's inception in 1979.'
Last week President Bush said, 'I think we believe Syria has chemical weapons,' the sort of chillingly offhand accusation which obviously cares nothing for facts but may one day be a pretext for war.
To understand the contradictions of the Syrian government and its relationship with the US it is important to look at its class base. The ruling Syrian Ba'ath Party of Bashar al-Assad came to power in 1963 in a military coup. The Syrians were at first allied with the Ba'ath in Iraq but split from them in the 1960s.
The Ba'athists were based on middle class intellectuals, professionals, students, traders and businessmen who hated what imperialism had done to the region. It had imposed artificial boundaries, undemocratically imposed rulers, and divided people who spoke the same language from one another.
The Ba'athists were pan-Arabists, believing in a united Arab world. They called for the nationalisation of major sections of the economy and opposing imperialism. But once the Ba'athists came to power they were pulled towards identification with the state they had taken over, not some general concept of 'the Arab world'.
This meant they soon became more concerned about the defence and extension of Syria's boundaries and interests, not pan-Arab revolution or effective support for the Palestinians.
If there was ever a conflict between Syrian state concerns and the rhetoric of anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism, it was Syrian state interests that won out. When the Ba'ath Party came to power it expressly rejected the dominant pan-Arabism of the Egyptian leader Nasser. Instead it called for 'revolution in one country' and began to build up the Syrian economy and state.
However, this did not stop constant tension with Israel, the outpost of US power in the region. In the 1967 war Israel defeated Syria and other Arab nations. Israel occupied Syria's Golan Heights.
The Syrian government split over how to react. One section argued that the country should ruthlessly pursue its own security and not risk conflict through challenging Israel and the West.
When Jordanian forces massacred Palestinians in 1970 in what became known as 'Black September' the Syrian government refused to use its air force to defend the Palestinians. Assad, the father of the present Syrian leader, took power soon afterwards in a coup.
Modern Syrian history has seen a continuing pattern of clashes with Israel, and rhetorical support for the Palestinians - but then opposition to the Palestinians if Syria's interests are seen to require it. So Egypt and Syria launched another war against Israel in 1973 in an attempt to reclaim back their land.
But then in 1976 Assad sent Syrian troops into Lebanon during the civil war in 1976 on the side of vicious right wing Christian militias who were fighting against Palestinian and Muslim groups.
Assad's forces collaborated with the Lebanese Phalangists in the massacre of 2,000 Palestinians at Beirut's Tel al Zaatar camp in 1976.
But this record is not good enough for the people around Bush. They still want more subservience and more compliance with what Israel wants.
The history shaped by imperialist intervention
WHAT IS now known as Syria was created by Britain and France after the First World War. The Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up the region between them. France took control of Syria and Lebanon. Britain took control of Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.
France imposed a landlord and merchant class as rulers in the new Syria. There was a huge movement against French control which met heavy repression. Syria won independence at the end of the Second World War. The present government has met resistance with severe repression. It has put down seven anti-regime uprisings - in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1973, 1980 and 1982.
An Islamic uprising in the late 1970s and 1980s reached a crescendo in February 1982 when Islamists took over the city of Hama. The Ba'athists sent in gunships, bulldozers and bombarded the city, killing at least 10,000 people.
Amnesty International reported, 'Some monitors stated old streets of the city were bombed from the air to facilitate the introduction of military forces and tanks through the narrow streets, like the al-Hader street, where homes were crushed by tanks during the first four days of fighting. On 15 February, after days of intense bombardment, the defence minister announced that the rebellion was put out, but the city remained under siege and surrounded. Door to door searches along with extensive arrests continued during the next two following weeks, while various news leaks talked about atrocities committed by the security forces and mass killings of innocent city residents.'
After 11 September 2001 Assad reminded the US of the way his government had acted in Hama and said it was a 'successful example' for Bush to follow. Since the death of Hafiz al-Assad in 2000 his son Bashar has promised political and economic liberalisation known as the 'Damascus Spring'. But the repression of human rights and political activists continues.
There are hundreds of political prisoners in Syria and human rights groups say that torture is 'routine'. As in Iraq, the US will try to use repression by the Syrian regime to justify its pressure on the country.
But the US government does not speak out against the human rights abuses by its allies in the region, such as Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait.
Hezbollah is hated by the US because it resists
ONE OF the reasons that the US is putting pressure on Syria is that it wants the regime to stop backing the Islamist Hezbollah group in southern Lebanon.
The US and Israel claim that Hezbollah is a 'terrorist' group and that Syria is a 'sponsor of terrorism'. In fact Hezbollah is a religiously - based resistance movement which developed out of the resistance of the Lebanese Shia Muslim groups to Israeli terror in south Lebanon.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 in an attempt to crush the Palestinian Liberation Organisation of Yasser Arafat which was based in the state. Many Shia welcomed the Israelis because of their dislike of the Palestinians' dominance. But they soon learnt that the Israelis were brutal occupiers.
After driving the PLO from Lebanon, killing thousands of civilians in the process, the Israeli army withdrew from much of Lebanon but kept a 15 kilometre 'security zone' in the south.
It bombed villages, killed civilians and destroyed power plants. For two decades the mightiest military power in the Middle East occupied the southern part of Lebanon at the cost of 20,000 lives. For all that time Israel ignored a United Nations resolution ordering it to pull out.
Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s as a response to the occupation. It developed mass support and became increasingly effective. Three years ago the resistance spearheaded by Hezbollah forced the Israeli army to withdraw and Lebanese people rejoiced.
Tens of thousands of those driven from their villages, or who fled to the north, returned to see people and places for the first time in a generation. The rejoicing went across the Middle East - in Syria, in the Gulf, in Jordan, in Egypt and in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Hezbollah was popular in Lebanon because it took on the Israelis and also provided a rudimentary welfare network. It set up schools, hospitals and clinics. It rebuilt houses destroyed by Israeli air raids, runs seminars for farmers on rebuilding agriculture, and has MPs in the Lebanese parliament.
Hezbollah's victory is an example of the Arab people's ability to resist imperialism, one that both the US and Israel want to neutralise. Hezbollah continues to support the Palestinian resistance to Israel. The US and Israel have tried to say that Hezbollah is linked to Al Qaida, although there is no evidence to demonstrate this.
Books to read on Syria and its role in the Middle East:
A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite by Said Aburish (£8.99).
Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War by Robert Fisk (£10.99).
Both books are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or order online at www.bookmarks.uk.com