By Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT (Reuters) - One of the pillars of President Bashar al-Assad's leadership is secularism, but nearly two years into a fight which it says is spearheaded by hardline Islamist terrorists, Damascus has decided to employ its enemy's tactic: jihad.
The highest official Sunni Muslim body in Syria, closely linked to the government, issued a religious decree on Sunday calling on Syrians to join the military, which it called both "a national and a religious duty".
The Dar al-Ifta council said members of the Syrian army "raise up the words of God in our beloved country" in their "defence and jihad for Syria."
"We appeal to all people in Syria to stand in one rank along with the Syrian Arab Army," the council said in a statement.
Syria's revolt started with widespread peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms but turned into a civil war after Assad's forces shot dead demonstrators and arrested thousands.
Four decades of Assad family rule, who are from the minority Alawite sect, is now threatened by majority Sunni rebel groups.
Some Sunni Muslim clerics within Syria and abroad have called for jihad, or Islamic holy war, to topple Assad and some rebel units are bolstered by foreign fighters.
Residents of Damascus who heard the fatwa, or religious edict, delivered on Sunday on state TV seemed puzzled.
"Since when does our government issue a fatwa for jihad?" asked one elderly woman. "I think Bashar really is losing it. He has no connection to reality whatsoever."
The head of Dar al Ifta, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, is a staunch supporter of Assad and lost his son in a rebel ambush in October 2011. But many of Syria's majority Sunnis do not support Hassoun.
Syria is calling up former soldiers from the reserves to active army service to bolster its 300,000 strong army, as many conscripts are failing to report for duty.
"I think (Assad) must be going nuts," said a man in his forties who asked to remain anonymous. "He must really be feeling the heat to pull something like this. He must be feeling more and more isolated."
(Editing by Jon Hemming)