DAMASCUS: Proclaiming the Syrian people winners in a “dirty war” waged by outsiders, President Bashar Assad was sworn in Wednesday for a third seven-year term despite the bloody civil war ignited by a mass uprising against his rule.
Assad, who appeared confident and occasionally made jokes during his inaugural address, declared victory over “terrorism” and said countries that supported the Syrian opposition “will pay a high price.”
The grandiose ceremony at the presidential palace capped a year of steady battlefield advances by Assad’s forces against the outgunned rebels.
However, the ceremony was moved from its traditional setting at the Parliament building in central Damascus, presumably due to security concerns.
State-run news agency SANA said four people were killed and 30 others injured by mortar bombs fired at several neighborhoods in Damascus. It said “terrorists” fired four shells that slammed in the Shaalan neighborhood, killing four people and wounding 22, with another two shells striking near the landmark Umayyad Square, wounding five others.
Later in the day, SANA ran a statement by the presidential affairs minister, Mansour Azzam, who said the change in venue was due to the authorities’ desire to “accommodate as many people as possible.”
State TV showed Assad arriving in a black sedan at the People’s Palace in Qassioun Mountain, the plateau that overlooks the capital. A band played the national anthem after which the 48-year-old president was seen walking a red carpet past an honor guard into a hall packed with MPs and Christian and Muslim clergymen.
Assad’s wife, Asma, was in the audience, wearing a beige skirt and jacket and sitting alongside several women in the front row. Wearing a dark blue suit and a blue shirt and tie, Assad placed his right hand on the Quran and pledged to honor the country’s constitution.
He then launched into an 80-minute speech in which he praised the Syrian people for holding the vote and for “defeating the dirty war” launched against them. “They wanted it to be a revolution but you were the real rebels,” he said. “They failed in trying to brainwash you, or break your will.”
Throughout the crisis, Assad has maintained that the conflict tearing his nation apart is a Western-backed conspiracy executed by “terrorists,” and not a popular revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, one seeking to end his family’s four-decade autocratic rule.
Assad refused to step down and last month he was re-elected in a landslide victory. The opposition and its Western allies dismissed the vote as a sham. But voting did not take place in opposition-held areas of Syria, effectively excluding millions of people.
Syria’s civil war, now in its fourth year, has killed more than 170,000 people and displaced one third of the country’s population.
“Congratulations on your victory and congratulations for Syria and its people who have defied all kinds of terrorism,” Assad said.
He mocked Arab and regional backers of the Syrian rebels fighting to topple him. “Whoever has supported terrorists, whether in the West or the Arabs, will pay the price sooner or later.”
In his speech, Assad dismissed the Syrian opposition abroad as traitors but said he would be willing to work with the country’s internal opposition, without giving details.
He also spoke about government plans for the future such as the need to fight corruption, ideas for religious educational reform and a program to rebuild some damaged areas.
Assad did not mention recent developments in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS militants have taken over large chunks of territory on both sides of the border, declaring a self-styled caliphate. He vowed, however, to continue fighting “terrorism” and to retake the cities of Aleppo and Raqqa – Raqqa is under the full control of ISIS.