"Syria rejects image as terrorist hotbed and calls for US friendship"
To the European cultural tourists who flock here, the place seems an oasis of calm and tolerance - certainly not a hotbed of terrorist sympathisers. Yet this, much to the annoyance of the Syrian authorities, is how they feel they are being portrayed.
America has repeatedly warned Syria for harbouring Palestinian terror groups and for failing to stop fundamentalist fighters from crossing the border with Iraq. Earlier last year it backed up its words with economic sanctions, and has told Syria it will remain under intense scrutiny.
Western diplomats give Syria some credit for tightening up frontier controls and co-operating with efforts to trace millions of dollars exported by Saddam Hussein. But United States officials stress that pressure will be maintained, whoever wins the presidential election. "They've been told that any president is going to be tough on terrorism and those who harbour terrorists," said one.
Such admonishments irk the government. "We don't take orders from outside," said Mahdi Daklallah, the Syrian information minister.
Syria also feels it is blamed for a problem of America's making. "They want to make the world think that the problem is on our border when the problem is in Iraq and what they are doing there," said Bouthaina Shaaban, minister for expatriates.
The country is in the middle of a reform process - albeit slow - for which it feel it gets insufficient credit. "Why not be friendly to Syria?" asked Dr Shaaban. "After all this is one of the few parts of the region where people live together in harmony."
European envoys say that under 39-year-old Bashar Assad, who took over as president from his father Hafez in 2000, the political atmosphere has lightened. There has been a loosening of the state's control of the media. Court proceedings are more visible and foreign diplomats have been allowed to attend hearings.
"There is a genuine feeling that it's becoming less of a police state," said one.
"There is less fear of the mukhabarat [state security] and people are not looking over their shoulders so much. But it's a change in the atmosphere rather than of the institutions."
The structures that sustained the authority of the old regime may be weakened next year when the ruling Ba'ath party holds a special congress that is expected to result in it abandoning the leading role granted it in the constitution.
And for all the prickliness felt in Damascus towards Washington, there is an acceptance that America has to be accommodated. The authorities say they have arrested several hundred fundamentalists trying to make their way into Iraq and have earned the praise of Colin Powell. Palestinian Hamas leaders exiled in Damascus are believed to have been told not to promote any operations that might provoke Israeli retaliation.
Ordinary Syrians emphasise that they like America. Many have family in the United States.