DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Proclaiming the Syrian people winners in a “dirty war” waged by outsiders, President Bashar Assad was sworn in on 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 in Damascus caps a year of steady battlefield advances by Assad’s forces against the outgunned rebels, who have been bogged down by infighting since January.
Syrian state TV broadcast what it said was a live ceremony Wednesday during which Assad took the oath of office. The TV showed Assad arriving in a black sedan at the People’s Palace in the Qassioun Mountain, the scenic plateau that overlooks the capital from the north.
A band played the Syrian national anthem after which the 48-year-old president was seen walking a red carpet past an honor guard into a hall packed with members of parliament and Christian and Muslim clergyman.
Wearing a dark blue suit and a blue shirt and tie, Assad placed his right hand on Islam’s holy book, the Quran, and pledged to honor the country’s constitution.
“I swear by the Almighty God to respect the country’s constitution, laws and its republican system and to look after the interests of the people and their freedoms,” he said to thunderous applause.
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.
As the conflict slid into civil war, 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.
Assad won 88.7 percent of the ballots cast in the first multicandidate elections in decades. 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.
The violence across the country continued Wednesday, including in the capital.
State-run news agency SANA said four people were killed and 30 others injured by mortar shells that were 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 Omayyad Square, wounding five others.
Reflecting the security threat surrounding Assad, the inauguration ceremony was for the first time held at the presidential palace and not in the Syrian parliament.
Syrian TV announced Wednesday morning that Assad would be sworn in at noon. His previous term in office was to expire on Thursday, and he had been widely expected to be sworn in then.
Assad’s wife, Asma, was in the audience Wednesday, wearing a beige skirt and jacket and sitting alongside several women in the front row.
“Congratulations for your victory and congratulations for Syria and its people who have defied all kinds of terrorism,” President 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,” he said.
Assad did not mention recent developments in Iraq and Syria, where militants from the so-called Islamic State group have taken over large chunks of territory on both sides of the border, declaring it a self-styled caliphate.
He vowed, however, to continue fighting “terrorism” and to retake the northern cities of Aleppo and Raqqa. Raqqa, in the northeast, is under the full control of the Islamic State group.
“We will not forget our beloved Raqqa, which we will liberate from the terrorists, God willing.”
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.