Assad lashes out after death of leading Syrian cleric and key Sunni ally

A bombing targeting a Damascus mosque killed Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, a critical source of Sunni support for the Assad regime amid the Sunni-led uprising.

Courtesy of SANA/Reuters
A file photo shows Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti speaking at a mosque. A blast at a mosque in central Damascus on Thursday killed Buti, a supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, state television said.

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Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad announced today that his troops would “wipe out” extremists after a suicide bombing killed a leading Sunni cleric who was a vital source of support for the Assad regime.

The blast in a downtown Damascus mosque yesterday killed 49 people, including Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti and his grandson, and injured 84, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).

Sheikh Buti was a supporter not only of Bashar al-Assad, but his father and predecessor as president, Hafez. As a Sunni, Buti's support for the predominantly Alawite Assad regime carried substantial weight, especially amid the predominantly Sunni-led uprising against the regime. He is also the most senior religious leader to be killed in the conflict, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives, the Associated Press reports.

The use of suicide bombings has become a common tactic in the Syrian war, but this was the first time a mosque has been the target.

It was also one of the biggest security breaches of the conflict, according to the AP. The New York Times reports that the military command and the Baath party headquarters are in the vicinity and the area is one of the most secured in Damascus.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing. A spokesman for the rebels' Free Syrian Army said the group did not take "any responsibility for this operation," reports BBC News. "We do not do these types of suicide bombings and we do not target mosques," Loay Maqdad told al-Arabiya television, according to BBC. 

Abu Anas, who lives near the mosque, told the New York Times that he was surprised Buti was targeted, even if he did back Assad. “It is very bad and sinful to kill someone inside a mosque, whatever his background,” Mr. Anas said. 

The support of Sheikh Buti, a Sunni, gave particularly important credibility to the regime, the Times reports. 

Mr. Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and his closest advisers and loyalists are Alawites, but the president still claimed credibility as a unifier of Syria’s religious sects partly because of the backing of prominent spiritual figures like Sheik Bouti.

“He was the most important Sunni clerical supporter of the Assad regime,” said Joshua M. Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the Syria Comment blog, which has tracked the conflict’s progression from a peaceful political uprising to a sectarian-tinged civil war. “It is a great blow to the regime and the remaining Sunni supporters of the president.”

Buti regularly preached on Syrian television, where his sermons were aired live and he had his own religious program. He encouraged the country to support Assad in his fight against the rebels.

According to the AP, earlier this month Buti gave a speech stating that there was "a religious duty to protect the values, the land, and the nation" of Syria. "There is no difference between the army and the rest of the nation," Buti said, endorsing Assad’s forces.

The Guardian reports that a former spokeswoman for the Syrian opposition, Bassma Kodmani, told the BBC that Buti was “widely despised.” 

"He [Buti] was not a very popular figure in Syria. About a week ago he called on 'Good Muslims' to fight to defend the regime against gangs – as the regime usually describes the rebels. That probably provoked a lot of anger among the revolutionary groups who perceived him as corrupt and controlled entirely by the regime.

I am not justifying [the attack] … Obviously a new level of violence has been reached and there is no justification for something such as this inside a mosque."

(The Guardian notes that Ms. Kodmani may have confused Buti with Syria's Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Dine Hassoun, who explicitly encouraged Syrians to join the Syrian Army.)

Some have pointed fingers at the regime itself for the suicide bombing, reports Agence France-Presse. Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition, said: "This is a crime, by any measure, that is completely rejected."

“Whoever did this was a criminal,” Mr. Khatib said. “And we suspect it was the regime."

The Syrian government deemed tomorrow, Saturday, a national day of mourning, and the airwaves are flooded with sermons today, the AP reports.

In his statement on state-run TV, Assad said Buti was a representation of true Islam in confronting "the forces of darkness and extremist" ideology.

"Your blood and your grandson's, as well as that of all the nation's martyrs will not go in vain because we will continue to follow your thinking to wipe out their darkness and clear our country of them," Assad said.

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