Syria campaigns to persuade U.S. to change sides

As Islamists increasingly fill the ranks of Syrian rebels, the government uses that as leverage.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEApril 25, 2013 

DAMASCUS, Syria - Some government supporters believe they are already coaxing - or at least frightening - the West into holding back stronger support for the opposition.

Confident they can sell their message to the West, government officials have eased their reluctance to allow foreign reporters into Syria, paraded prisoners they described as extremist fighters captured on the battlefield and relied unofficially on a Syrian-American businessman to help tap into U.S. fears of groups like al-Qaida.

"We are partners in fighting terrorism," Syria's prime minister, Wael al-Halqi, said.

Omran al-Zoubi, the information minister, said: "It's a war for civilization, identity and culture. Syria, if you want, is the last real secular state in the Arab world."

Despite hopes in Damascus, President Barack Obama has not backed off his demand that Assad step down. The administration also has kept up economic pressure on the government and has increased nonlethal aid to the opposition while calling for a negotiated settlement to the fighting.

But the U.S. has signaled growing discomfort with the rising influence of radical Islamists on the battlefield. It remains unwilling to arm the rebels or to consider stepping in more forcefully without conclusive evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, as some Israeli officials assert.

It is difficult to see behind the propaganda of either side because government officials or the rebels - depending on the territory - control access. Information is a strategic weapon in the stalemated conflict, as both sides seek support from suffering Syrians and foreign countries.

Government officials said America and its allies orchestrated the uprising to punish Syria for opposing Israel. They also spoke of common interests. Syria, the prime minister said, is defending moderate Islam against "the dark Islam."

Opponents say the government itself has fueled sectarianism, first by favoring Assad's Alawite sect, now by using code words like "Wahhabis" and "al-Qaida" to blame the Sunni Muslim majority for the violence.

Officials argued that if Assad fell, Europe would face an arc of Islamist-led states from Turkey to Libya. They called on the United States to investigate whether Turkey was funneling jihadists to Syria in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution.

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