[Marxism] Baathists sell Islamophobic message to White House
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Thu Apr 25 06:29:30 MDT 2013
NY Times April 24, 2013
Syria Campaigns to Persuade U.S. to Change Sides
By ANNE BARNARD
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
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