Syria Plays on Fears to Blunt American Support of Rebels

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DAMASCUS, Syria -- As Islamists increasingly fill the ranks of Syrian rebels, President Bashar al-Assad is waging an energized campaign to persuade the United States that it is on the wrong side of the civil war. Some government supporters and officials 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, government officials have eased their reluctance to allow foreign reporters into Syria, paraded prisoners they described as extremist fighters and relied unofficially on a Syrian-American businessman to help tap into American fears of groups like Al Qaeda.

"We are partners in fighting terrorism," Syria's prime minister, Wael Nader 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 Obama has not backed off his demand that Mr. Assad step down. The administration has also kept up economic pressure on his government and has increased nonlethal aid to the opposition while calling for a negotiated settlement to the fighting.

But the United States has signaled growing discomfort with the rising influence of radical Islamists on the battlefield, and 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.

There is frustration with the West's inability to help nurture a secular military or political opposition to replace Mr. Assad.

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.

The government's new strategy was on display during a two-week visit to Damascus by journalists for The New York Times.

Exhibit A was a group of blindfolded prisoners who shuffled into a dimly lighted courtyard one recent evening, each clutching the shirt of the man in front of him. Security officials billed them as vicious Islamic extremists who came from all over the world to wage jihad in Syria.

The men turned out to be five Syrians, a Palestinian and an Iraqi, and they described a range of goals, from Islamic rule to representative democracy.

In Damascus, officials and supporters sounded several themes: They believe they can win the war, and see no need to moderate the military crackdown. They expect Mr. Assad to run for re-election next year, and some say he can win, brushing off doubts about how voting will work in a country where nearly half the people have been forced from their homes.

Some officials and members of the Syrian elite even say -- however far-fetched -- they can persuade the West to embrace their president as a champion of common values and interests, even as he presses a military strategy widely criticized as striking civilian targets indiscriminately.

Most of all, the war seems to have inspired some of Mr. Assad's supporters. Some prominent Syrians, long frustrated by corruption and favoritism, say they have a newly compelling reason to stick by the government.

Now, they say, they are fighting for an idea: preserving Syria's mosaic of religions and cultures.

And they see themselves, with their well-traveled, secular lifestyles, as ideally equipped to connect to the West.

That is the mission of Khaled Mahjoub, a Syrian-American businessman.

At the nearly deserted Four Seasons Hotel, Mr. Mahjoub ordered Lebanese rosé. Syrians, he said, embrace joy at the hardest times. He smoked a thick cigar as Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" played softly in the background, mixing with the clap of mortar rounds headed for the Damascus suburbs.

"Syrian tobacco," he said. "One hundred percent organic."

For Mr. Mahjoub, who builds environmentally sustainable housing, blames "Bedouin petrodollars" for rising extremism and quotes from "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," Mr. Assad is fighting an enemy driven by the ideology of Al Qaeda, "the same enemy that did 9/11."

Mr. Mahjoub, who has known Mr. Assad since attending the Syrian capital's Lycée Français with Mr. Assad's brother, Basil, said the president and the system he inherited from his father, Hafez, bear some responsibility for the tumult. Economic stagnation sent too many Syrians to work in Saudi Arabia, where they absorbed extremist views, he said, and security forces have made mistakes, too.

"But that," he said, "doesn't justify burning the farm."

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 Mr. Assad's Alawite sect, now by using code words like "Wahhabis" and "Al Qaeda" to blame the Sunni Muslim majority for the violence.

Officials said that if Mr. Assad fell, Europe would face an arc of Islamist-led states from Turkey to Libya. They urged Washington to investigate whether Turkey was funneling jihadists to Syria in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, which mandates international cooperation against terrorism.

Their biggest priority, though, was the visit with the prisoners.

The prisoners were driven from several jails to a security building. They had been held and interrogated for months without charges.

One prisoner called for global Islamic rule; others spoke of being brainwashed to kill for money. Another wanted democratic representation in the government.

At first, a wiry senior security official had promised his American guests something less ambiguous. "They will tell you they're against you, " he said. He declined to identify himself, or to specify what percentage of prisoners were foreigners. He said that as of August, the government had identified 600 slain foreign fighters. The conflict has killed more than 70,000 people.

Few dispute that foreign fighters who want Islamic rule -- and many more Syrians joining them for ideological or pragmatic reasons -- are influential in Syria's armed opposition. The United States has blacklisted as a terrorist organization one rebel group, the Nusra Front, which merged with Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Still, foreign fighters form a fraction of the tens of thousands of rebels. Powerful rebel commanders in Aleppo and Idlib say they took up arms to defend their homes and villages after security forces fired on peaceful protesters. From the start, many fighters reflected the traditional piety of their communities. Ideological jihadists became prominent later, after the opposition had trouble gaining arms -- while the jihadists have had willing donors.

The prisoners were interviewed in front of their jailers. One limped. They denied being coerced -- or mistreated, except, one said, when he "made mistakes." But there was no way to know whether their stories were true, evasive or scripted.

The first prisoner presented was Bahaa Mahmoud al-Baash, a Palestinian resident of Syria. He called for a Muslim caliphate "not only in Syria, but in the whole world." He said he had trained suicide attackers in Iraq and added, smiling and glancing at security officials, "I will fight the Americans to my last."

He has made similar remarks on Britain's Sky News and Syrian state television.

Three Syrians described a transition they could not fully explain: They had no opinions on the uprising, but were later brainwashed by preachers who paid them to demonstrate, then to kidnap, rape and kill. Two said they followed orders to rape and kill female relatives of government employees, fearing that otherwise their leaders would kill their families.

They expressed love for Mr. Assad, and urged associates to surrender.

A fourth Syrian, Abdulmoneim Mohammed Tayura, used to sell walnuts in a heavily bombarded Damascus suburb, Barzeh. He said he demonstrated, and later fought "to topple the regime."

What did he want next? "To be represented in the upcoming government."

Ali Hussein al-Shumarri, from Iraq, said he fought the United States there, then came to Syria for "jihad for the sake of God" and to "topple the regime."

To Syrian officials, the conclusion is obvious. Mr. Zoubi, the information minister, asked if Washington "really believes" the rebels are "revolutionaries," not "terrorists."

"If they really believe, that is a disaster," he said. "If they know they are not revolutionaries and consciously support Al Qaeda, that is a bigger disaster."

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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