DUBAI - A senior cleric in Islam's holy city Mecca exhorted followers on Friday to support Syrian rebels by "all means", the latest in a series of rhetorical attacks on President Bashar Assad reflecting rising sectarian tension across the Middle East.
His appeal came at a time when momentum on the battlefield has been shifting in Assad's favor, just a few months after analysts wrote him off, making the prospect of his swift removal and an end to Syria's civil war look remote in the near future.
The Sunni Muslim-led revolt against Iranian-backed Assad, whose Alawite minority is a branch of Shi'ite Islam, has taken on sectarian overtones since the open intervention last month of Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah guerrillas on Assad's side.
In a sermon to worshippers at Saudi Arabia's Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sunni Sheikh Saoud al-Shuraym denounced Assad as a tyrant whose troops he said had raped women, killed children and destroyed homes over the past two years.
"All of that puts on the shoulder of each one of us a share of responsibility before God, on leaders, rulers, scholars, reformers, thinkers and people to take a unified and conscious stand against the mad (crackdown) on our brothers in Syria," Shuraym said in a sermon broadcast on Saudi state television.
"By God..., our brothers need more efforts and determination to be exerted to remove the merciless injustice and aggression through all means and with no exceptions," he told followers. "We tell our brothers in the Levant to be patient."