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Syria tailors propaganda for Western nations

The minaret of the Umayyad mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was toppled by explosives on Wednesday, with both sides trading blame.

Aleppo Media Center via Associated Press

The minaret of the Umayyad mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was toppled by explosives on Wednesday, with both sides trading blame.

DAMASCUS — 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 US fears of groups like Al Qaeda.

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

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 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.

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 Syria 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 control access. Information is a strategic weapon in the 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. Security officials billed them as vicious Islamist extremists who came from all over the world to wage jihad in Syria.

The men included 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 Assad supporters. Some prominent Syrians, long frustrated with corruption and favoritism, say they now have a compelling reason to stick by the government.

Khaled Mahjoub, a Syrian-American businessman who has known Assad since attending the Syrian capital’s Lycee Francais with Assad’s brother, Basil, said the president and the system he inherited from his father, Hafez, bear some responsibility for the tumult.

“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.’’

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