With global attention turned to crises raging elsewhere in the region, a triumphant and defiant Bashar Assad was sworn in Wednesday for a third term as president of war-ravaged Syria.
Assad’s address during an elaborate ceremony at the presidential palace overlooking Damascus, reported by the official Syrian Arab News Agency, was a virtual declaration of victory in the war that has convulsed the Middle Eastern nation since 2011.
Still, he vowed to fight on to evict “terrorists” — as he routinely calls anti-government rebels — from remaining strongholds such as the northern cities of Aleppo and Raqqah.
“They wanted ... a revolution, but you have been the real revolutionaries,” Assad told his supporters, lauding those who stood by his government in the now-stalled rebellion backed by the United States and its allies in the region.
“They employed every dirty trick, they left no perverted path untaken, and they failed,” Assad said of the rebels while praising the Syrian people for “standing like a spear in the face of cunning.”
Critics immediately assailed the address as divorced from the reality on the ground in Syria, where much of the country still remains out of government control. The conflict has wrecked the economy, left vast swaths of the nation in ruins, cost more than 100,000 lives and led more than 3 million Syrians to flee the country.
Sounding confident and assured, Assad warned that Arab countries and other nations would pay a “high price” for having supported a rebellion that has seen Islamist fighters from across the world descend on Syria.
Today, the Islamic State group that arose from the chaos of Syria threatens the U.S.-backed government in neighboring Iraq and has already been blamed for plotting to destabilize Lebanon's fragile, multisectarian democracy. Some analysts say the spreading chaos has bolstered Assad’s position as a bulwark against Al Qaeda-style extremists.
Assad spoke during an especially turbulent moment for the region: In addition to the Sunni Muslim fighters threatening Iraq, Israel has been bombarding the Gaza Strip for days and Libya is mired in a cycle of militia violence.
In Syria, Assad’s forces have seen a year of battlefield victories, retaking the strategic city of Homs and other areas. His government has also completed a hand-over of its chemical weapons stocks for destruction despite widespread skepticism that he would comply with a United Nations mandate.
Not long after the Syrian rebellion began, some observers were saying Assad’s ouster was inevitable, a matter of weeks or months. On Wednesday, however, he talked of rebuilding the battered nation.
That Washington and other foes dismissed as a farce the June 3 balloting that gave Assad a new seven-year term did not appear to phase the Syrian president. The opposition called the election a sham.
The Syrian president has long described the rebellion as a “conspiracy” hatched by the United States and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both major supporters of anti-Assad forces.
In his speech, Assad mocked the Arab Spring revolts that helped topple several Middle Eastern despots and condemned the “backward” Arab nations — a clear reference to the Persian Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both close U.S. allies — that are aiding the Syrian uprising.
He also derided the largely Islamist rebel forces that have fought to dislodge his secular government, ridiculing their frequent invocations of the Almighty.
“When they said ‘God is great,’ God was greater than them and those who stood by them because God is on the side of the right,” Assad said.
Bulos is a special correspondent.
Follow news out of the Middle East on Twitter at @mcdneville.