Assad Is Sworn In for Third 7-year Term in Syria
Beirut (NEWYORKTIMES + DIPLOMAT) — Feted by supporters, whom he hailed as the victors of his country’s brutal civil war, a triumphalist President Bashar al-Assad was sworn in Wednesday for a third seven-year term after an election that was widely seen as a gesture of calculated defiance toward the United States and others in the West and in the Arab world seeking his ouster.
With his right hand on the Quran, the holy book of Islam, Mr. Assad took the oath at the so-called People’s Palace overlooking Damascus, the capital.
State-run television broadcast what it said was live footage of the Syrian leader arriving in a black BMW sedan as a military band played the national anthem. Smiling and confident, Mr. Assad, 48, strode on a red carpet and inspected an honor guard as he entered a hall crammed with lawmakers and other dignitaries.
Since March 2011, an initially peaceful uprising against him has turned into a bloody civil war claiming tens of thousands of lives. Mr. Assad has faced an array of armed rebel forces, including secular opponents and Islamic fighters. Millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, either displaced within the country or spilling over its frontiers as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere.
In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Assad called his adversaries “terrorists” — his usual label for them — and urged them to “drop their weapons because we won’t stop fighting terrorism and striking it wherever it exists in Syria.”
There was no longer a place in the country, he said, “for those who are waiting the end of the war from outside. It is an illusion. The political solution comes from the reconciliation inside.”
While the rebels at first seemed to be taking over swaths of the country, Mr. Assad’s forces have claimed in recent months to be turning back the tide of insurrection, defying Western and Arab demands that any political settlement should include his departure from office, a demand he has always resisted.
“They wanted it to be a revolution, but you have been the real revolutionaries,” Mr. Assad told his supporters on Wednesday, according to news reports. “Congratulations for your victory.”
The inauguration followed closely-choreographed elections in June in which Mr. Assad was said officially to have won almost 90 percent of the votes. “For many Syrians, the presidential elections were like the bullet directed toward the chests of the terrorists,” Mr. Assad said.
The latest estimates of the numbers killed in the war stand at about 170,000. In a statement on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and gathers information from contacts in Syria, said that since the presidential election on June 4, 743 civilians had been killed, including 197 children and 108 women.
Among those opposed to Mr. Assad is the Sunni militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, which has extended its victories in eastern Syria and pushed across the border into Iraq to declare an Islamic state.
In eastern Syria on Wednesday, an anti-Assad activist who asked to be identified only as Wissam said he was hiding in his home in the city of Deir al-Zour because of the dominance of ISIS. Many secular rebels have abandoned the fray after the advances made by the Islamists in the region.
“In my opinion, Bashar has achieved political victory,” Wissam said. “It is a bitter reality but I confess that Assad managed to convince the world that his war is against terrorist groups. After all these sacrifices, today Assad came and took the leadership on a golden dish while the international community remained silent.”
For their part, many Islamist fighters dismissed Mr. Assad’s speech. “Any person who thinks Bashar is the president is living under an illusion,” said one Islamist fighter in Aleppo, declining to give his name. “The problem is no longer Bashar. It is the caliphate,” he said referring to the militants’ demand for rule by Islamic law.