Syrian officials coaxing U.S., West

Assad government looking for support

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DAMASCUS, Syria -- As Islamists increasingly fill the ranks of Syrian rebels, President Bashar 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 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 Mr. Assad step down. The administration has also 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 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.

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.

During a two-week visit here, the government rolled out its new strategy.

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.

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

Meanwhile, fighting between Syrian insurgents and government forces in Aleppo left one of the Middle East's most storied mosques severely damaged Wednesday, its soaring minaret toppled by explosives. Each side accused the other of responsibility for the destruction at the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo's ancient city, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The mosque is considered an archaeological treasure but has been a battleground for months. It was first heavily damaged by fighting in October, and Mr. Assad promised a restoration. But the military later retreated from the mosque and rebel fighters have occupied it since early this year.

Syria's state media said the Nusra Front, an Islamic militant faction of the insurgency, had placed explosives inside the minaret, which dates from the 11th century.

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