DAMASCUS (AFP) ― President Bashar al-Assad was sworn in Wednesday for a new term, warning Western and Arab governments of the backfire they face for their support of the armed revolt in Syria.
In a triumphant speech before an invited audience after taking the oath of office at a red carpet ceremony in Damascus, Assad mocked the “fake spring” of the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Assad, 48, won a June election denounced as a “farce” by his detractors, three years into a devastating war that has killed more than 170,000 people and uprooted millions.
“Syrians, three years and four months ... have passed since some cried ‘freedom,’” Assad said in his address, broadcast live on national television, referring to the outbreak of the 2011 revolt.
“They wanted a revolution, but you have been the real revolutionaries. I congratulate you for your revolution and for your victory,” he told supporters at the start of a new seven-year term. “The mask of freedom and the revolution has fallen.”
Rebel mortar fire hit several districts of Damascus as Assad wound up his speech at the presidential palace, residents said.
State media said four people were killed.
Assad’s inauguration comes with much of the world’s attention focused elsewhere, as violence engulfs Iraq, Gaza and Libya, even as his forces pound rebel-held areas of Syria’s second city, Aleppo.
During the first two years of the Syrian revolt, which began as a peaceful protest movement before transforming into an armed rebellion, the opposition’s Western and Arab supporters repeatedly insisted he step down.
But the rise of the jihadist Islamic State in both Syria and neighboring Iraq has turned the tide.
Assad has from the outset branded the revolt a foreign-backed “terrorist plot”, refusing to recognize any genuine movement for change.
He won the election, held in government-controlled areas only, with 88.7 percent of the vote, defeating two little-known rival candidates.
Assad issued a fresh call Wednesday for “national dialogue”, but ruled out talks with “those who have not proven their patriotism”, referring to the exiled opposition.
“We stress the need to press on with national reconciliation to stop the bloodshed,” said Assad, who regime has clinched a string of local truces around Damascus that activists say remain fragile.
The opposition National Coalition ridiculed the election even before it was held, a sentiment echoed on Wednesday by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
“Today’s so-called inauguration in Syria and last month’s elections are parodies of democracy,” he said. “The Assad regime is a source of terrorism in Syria, not the solution to it.”
Samir Nashar, a veteran dissident and member of the coalition, admitted the world’s attention has largely turned away from Syria.
“Unfortunately for Syrians, the instability (across the Middle East) has distracted the international community‘s attention,” he said.
Analysts say the rise of the jihadists has been a “gift” for Assad, allowing him to portray himself as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.
Following in the footsteps of his father and predecessor Hafez, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years, Assad has ignored the calls for his ouster.
His regime has been propped up with support from allies Iran and Russia.
Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah has also sent thousands of elite fighters to back up the Syrian army.
The rebels by contrast have remained divided and poorly armed.
Weakening the rebels further, they have fought the IS since January, in battles which have killed more than 6,000 combatants.
After the inauguration, the government has to resign and Assad will appoint a new prime minister to replace Wael al-Halqi.
But for the exiled opposition‘s new chief, Hadi al-Bahra, Assad “is at the core of the Syrian conflict.”
And his predecessor, Ahmad Jarba, said in a statement: “Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal, and the only place he should be ... is in an international criminal court.”