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Syria tells US to stay out; death toll at 355
DAMASCUS, Syria – The Syrian government warned the United States not to launch any military action against Damascus over an alleged chemical attack last week, saying such a move would set the Middle East ablaze.
Meanwhile, an international aid group said it has tallied 355 deaths from the purported chemical weapons attack Wednesday in a suburb of the Syrian capital known as Ghouta. The regime of President Bashar Assad has accused rebels of the attack.
Also, U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. President Barack Obama met with his national security team Saturday to consider a military response to the chemical attack.
Associated Press
A Syrian man mourns over a dead body after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists, in Damascus, Syria.

Syrian regime is confident despite turmoil

– The signs would seem bad for President Bashar Assad. Blasts echo all day long over the Syrian capital as troops battle rebels entrenched on its eastern doorstep. The government admits the economy is devastated. Allegations of a horrific chemical attack have given new life to calls for international action against his regime.

Yet the regime appears more confident than ever that it weathered the worst and has gained the upper hand in the country’s civil war, even if it takes years for victory.

Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil traces a slow arc in the air with his hand to show how the country has reached a turning point in “the events” – the most common euphemism here for 2 1/2 years of bloodshed.

“If the previous trajectory was all negative, it is now on a new course of a gradual reduction of violence, until it goes back to zero,” he told The Associated Press.

There are multiple reasons for the new sense of assurance. The military scored a string of victories on the ground the past few months that blunted a rebel surge early in the year. Army offensives stalled or pushed back rebels in Damascus’ suburbs.

A rebel drive into a regime heartland in the western province on the Mediterranean coast was swiftly reversed over the past week. The bleeding of defections from the military to the rebellion appears to have slowed.

The regime also believes it has shored up its most serious vulnerability: the economy.

Prices for food and clothes have quadrupled in some cases, the Syrian pound has plunged in comparison with the dollar, and the war has crippled the nation’s production and trade.

But this summer, Syria’s allies Russia and Iran effectively handed the government a lifeline, with credit lines to buy rice, flour, sugar, petroleum products and other staples. With that, the regime hopes it can keep an exhausted population clothed, fed, warm in the winter – and firmly on its side – enough to endure a long fight.

When asked whether Syria would have to pay back the credit lines in the future, Jamil smiled, saying, “It’s between friends.”

Also, the increasing presence of foreign jihadi fighters, many linked to al-Qaida, has played in the regime’s favor. The Islamic militants’ strength has made the United States and its allies wary of sending badly needed weapons to the rebels and of taking direct military action against Assad, for fear of what could come next if he falls.

Those worries could overcome any sense of outrage over the alleged chemical attack Wednesday in a Damascus suburb. The rebels blamed the attack on the regime, an accusation the government has denied, claiming that foreign jiahdis among the rebels were behind it.

Fear of foreign radicals is also a powerful tool for keeping the population’s support for the regime.

One station recently aired an interview with a purported repentant female rebel who spoke of jihadi sheiks issuing religious decrees allowing foreign fighters to rape Syrian women.

Another station aired alleged audiotapes of a phone call between a Saudi extremist and a Syrian rebel about transporting sarin gas and planning other attacks.

“People get infected by ideas. I’m a Sunni, I pray and I fast and I have faith in God. But I’m moderate. But there are people who listen to these lunatic ideas,” said Abu Ahmed, who works at a dress store.

He contended that the extent of the bloodshed has disillusioned even some who supported the calls for reform when peaceful protests against the regime first began in March 2011, only to be met by a fierce crackdown.

“Some people thought, OK, we’ll see some change. But they didn’t think about the consequences and what would be unleashed. Now anyone who thought that is rethinking it,” said Ahmed, who fled to Damascus from a rebel-held suburb, leaving behind his property.