President Bashar al-Assad was sworn in for a fourth term in war-torn Syria on Saturday, after officially winning 95% of the vote in a failed overseas election.
It was the second presidential vote since the start of a decade-long civil war that has killed nearly half a million people and hit the country’s infrastructure.
Shortly before the ceremony, rockets fired by pro-government forces killed six people, including three children and a rescue worker in the country’s last great rebel stronghold, Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
An AFP correspondent in the town of Sarja saw men hurriedly working to remove bodies from the rubble of a collapsed house, before carrying one away on a red blanket.
Assad, 55, took the oath on the Syrian constitution and the Koran in the presence of more than 600 guests, including ministers, businessmen, academics and journalists, organizers said.
The elections “have demonstrated the strength of popular legitimacy … conferred on the state,” Assad said in his inauguration speech.
“They have discredited the statements of Western officials about the legitimacy of the state.”
On the eve of the May 26 elections, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy said the poll was “neither free nor fair,” and Syria’s fragmented opposition has called it a “sham.”
The Syrian war has displaced millions of people since it began in 2011 with the crackdown on anti-government protests. Assad called on “those who bet on … the collapse of the state” to return to the “embrace of the fatherland.”
With the slogan of his campaign, “Hope through work,” Assad had presented himself as the only realist architect of reconstruction.
In his speech, he said that the focus is now on freeing up areas that are still out of government control and boosting the economy and people’s livelihoods.
After a series of victories against jihadists and rebels with key backing from allies Russia and Iran, government forces today control two-thirds of Syria. The former Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda runs the opposition stronghold of Idlib in the northwest, where Turkish-backed rebels are also present.
A Turkish-Russian ceasefire has largely been maintained in Idlib since March 2020, after stopping the latest deadly government offensive in the region of some three million people. But violations of that truce have increased in the south of the bastion in recent weeks, the Britain-based observatory said.
Kurdish-led forces control much of the oil-rich east after expelling the jihadist group Islamic State from the region with the backing of the United States. And Turkey and its Syrian proxies have a large swath of territory along the northern border.
Assad vowed to seize the remaining Syrian territory from “the terrorists and their Turkish and American backers.”
Assad is sworn in as the country faces a serious economic crisis. More than 80% of the population lives in poverty, and the value of the Syrian pound has plummeted against the dollar, causing inflation to skyrocket.
In recent weeks, the government has raised the price of gasoline, bread, sugar and rice, while power outages can last up to 20 hours a day due to fuel shortages. Nationwide, 12.4 million people struggle to find enough food each day, the World Food Program said.
The Damascus government has blamed the country’s economic woes on Western sanctions and a deepening crisis in neighboring Lebanon.
Banks in Lebanon have prohibited depositors from withdrawing their savings in dollars for more than a year, affecting Syrian customers. “The biggest obstacle now is Syrian funds frozen in Lebanese banks,” Assad said, estimating that they amount to tens of billions of dollars.
The Syrian war has cost the country $ 1.2 trillion, the World Vision charity estimated.
After the swearing-in ceremony, Assad met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and paid the first visit by a senior Chinese official to Syria since early 2012. The two men discussed Syria’s possible involvement in the infrastructure and trade of the China Belt and Road. initiative, said the presidency.
Assad was first elected by referendum in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria for 30 years.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism