BEIRUT (AP) — In a lavish ceremony, a smiling and confident President Bashar Assad was sworn in for a third seven-year term on Wednesday, praising his supporters for “defeating the dirty war” and denouncing insurgents who have “failed in trying to brainwash you or break your will.”
As he declared victory, the Western-backed push to topple him or reach a political deal seem increasingly elusive. And while new conflicts in the region have grabbed attention, Syria’s 3-year-old civil war is grinding on without reprieve, with 170,000 dead and a third of the country displaced.
While combat continues along all major front line towns and cities across the country — opposition activists say more than 400 people have been killed in the past three days alone — much of the fighting has now shifted.
Rebels once focused on Assad’s forces are now simultaneously fighting increasingly belligerent jihadis seeking to expand a cross-border fiefdom they carved out with neighboring Iraq.
The stunning takeover by militants of the Islamic State group of large areas of northern and eastern Syria and parts of neighboring Iraq has created a new adversary for the West — one that threatens their national security far more than Assad ever did.
No longer the focus of attention, Assad’s forces continue to steadily advance against rebels in key areas, most recently in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a much coveted prize for both sides of the conflict.
“This is a critical moment for the West to give promised aid to the moderate forces,” said Hussam Al-Marie, a spokesman for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in northern Syria. “If not enough aid is given, we could see the annihilation of several battalions, who have said they’ll fight to the last bullet.”
Assad appeared keenly aware Wednesday of the advantage he now holds over the weak and arms-strapped rebels as he took the oath of office Wednesday.
Looking confident and self-assured and striking a victorious tone, he suggested that he was fighting terrorism on behalf of the entire world “which will sooner or later be subjected to similar terrorism.”
“Congratulations for your victory and congratulations for Syria and its people who have defied all kinds of terrorism,” he said, addressing the Syrian people.
The war in Syria and recent turmoil in Iraq and now Gaza, he said, were all connected. “These are all part of a series (of conspiracies) planned by Israel and the West.”
Syrian state TV showed Assad arriving at the People’s Palace on Qassioun Mountain, the scenic plateau that overlooks the capital from the north, to a red carpet reception by a military band.
Wearing a dark blue suit and a blue shirt and tie, Assad placed his hand on Islam’s holy book, the Quran, pledging to honor the country’s constitution before a hall packed with members of parliament and Christian and Muslim clergymen.
A barrage of mortar shells struck the capital during his 80-minute speech, killing four people and wounding 30 others, according to the state-run news agency.
Reflecting security concerns, the inauguration was for the first time held at the presidential palace and not in the Syrian parliament as has been the tradition, drawing criticism from the opposition which described the event as “political theater.”
The grandiose ceremony at the presidential palace in Damascus caps what has been a recent reversal of fortune on the battlefield for Assad’s forces battling the rebellion against him. In the past year, troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have managed to seize the momentum in the civil war, dislodging outgunned rebels bogged down in infighting from several key areas.
Throughout the crisis, Assad has maintained that the conflict that has torn his nation apart was a Western-backed conspiracy executed by “terrorists” — and not a popular revolt by people inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, seeking democracy and disenchanted with his authoritarian 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. The voting did not take place in opposition-held areas, effectively excluding millions of people from the vote.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Assad “has no more credibility now than he did before the so-called presidential election.”
“We will continue to help the Syrian people stand up against Bashar Assad and support those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own futures,” she said.
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.
Remaining residents are trapped in an ever-shrinking space wedged between Assad’s forces and the Islamic militants who have callously imposed their strict interpretation of Islam in areas under their control.
Warplanes carry out airstrikes on opposition-held areas on daily basis. Helicopters drop barrel bombs — crude explosives known by Syrians as “barrels of death” — randomly, smashing homes and shops and leaving death in their trail.
Some rebels concede that their priority is now to fight off the grave menace posed by the expansionist ambitions of Islamic State jihadis.
Addressing his fighters headed off to battle IS extremists last month, senior rebel commander Zahran Alloush used expletives to describe the jihadis. In a contentious speech uploaded by activists on the Internet, he said the reward for fighting the Islamic State group was double the reward for fighting Assad’s forces.
The rare on-camera diatribe captured the bitter loathing rebels once reserved only for Assad’s troops and inner circle.
“We shall crush them, God willing,” Alloush said.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Bassem Mroue and Sam Kimball in Beirut and Matt Lee in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.