Assad inaugurated to 3rd term, says events in region prove him right about terrorism

Syrian President Bashar Assad has been sworn in for his third seven-year term in office. State TV broadcast what it said was a live ceremony on Wednesday from Damascus. (AP)
July 16

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared victory over those who had sought to overthrow him as he embarked Wednesday on a third term in office, buoyed by a growing extremist threat to the region that has helped cement his hold on power.

With jihadists rampaging across neighboring Iraq and the focus of Western powers shifting toward the containment of terrorism, a confident Assad made it clear that he no longer perceives a challenge to his 14-year-old presidency, now extended by seven more years after he won a tightly controlled election last month.

Addressing lawmakers and officials at his inauguration, Assad said that the carnage unleashed by the Syrian war proved right his early characterization of the revolt against him as a terrorist conspiracy and that those who supported the efforts to oust him will suffer consequences.

“We warned that this is a crisis that won’t stop at Syria, but some said the Syrian president was threatening the world with empty words,” Assad said in the hour-long speech, delivered at the mountaintop presidential palace overlooking Damascus and purportedly broadcast live by state television.

“Soon, we will see that Arab, regional and Western countries, which supported terrorism, will also be paying a high price of their own,” he said.

“Research centers will study their stupid decisions for years to come,” he added, one of several comments in which he mocked his international foes.

The ceremony culminated a year in which Assad turned the tide of the revolt, which began with peaceful demonstrations in 2011 but mutated into an armed rebellion after he ordered troops to crush them.

The entry of extremists, notably those with an al-Qaeda affiliate that fought U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, soon changed the tenor of the Syrian war. The United States was deterred from arming the opposition, prompting disillusionment with the West and spurring rebel defections to the better-armed and -funded extremists and fulfilling the predictions of Assad, who had labeled his opponents “terrorists” from the outset.

“We warned that this is a crisis that won’t stop at Syria, but some said the Syrian president was threatening the world with empty words,” Assad said.

“Isn’t what we see now in Iraq, Lebanon and other countries of the ‘spring’ exactly what we warned against repeatedly?” he asked.

Assad still faces big challenges. The government in Baghdad, a key ally, is at risk of being overrun by Islamic State extremists who surged across the border from Syria, days after Assad’s reelection, and are inching closer to the Iraqi capital. An important land route from Iran has been lost to the militants. Shiite Iraqi militias that had helped reinforce the Syrian army have pulled out to defend their terrain in Iraq.

The Islamic State — formerly known by the acronym ISIS — has also launched a new offensive to extend its hold in northern and eastern Syria, aided by U.S. weapons captured from the disintegrating Iraqi army.

But in what analysts have long regarded as an unspoken arrangement of mutual convenience, the Syrian government and the extremists rarely confront each other, preferring to focus their energies on fighting more-moderate rebels in their respective territories.

Assad foreshadowed an eventual showdown with the jihadists by pledging to retake Raqqah, their north-central stronghold and self-proclaimed capital.

But Raqqah poses no immediate threat to Assad’s grip on Damascus, and in the meantime, the ascendancy of the jihadists in Iraq and in Syria helps dilute Western concerns about his rule.

“Containing the spread of ISIS and other jihadists in the region is the priority for the White House now,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Assad’s new regime is seen as a more distant problem.”

Assad also pledged to recapture the northern city of Aleppo, a strategic prize from which more-moderate rebels have been squeezed in recent months by a sustained government onslaught. Rebel control of pockets of territory elsewhere in the country poses no direct threat to his rule.

“There’s a sense of confidence that he is already past the worst and looking ahead to the future,” said Yezid Sayigh of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center. “The regime has had reason to be confident for quite a while. They’ve been making slow but steady gains on key fronts for a long while.”

The gains are attributable in no small part to Russia and Iran, Assad allies that have backed him with arms and manpower. Assad drew applause during his address when he thanked them, as well as China, for repeatedly vetoing Western action at the U.N. Security Council.

He also thanked the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, whose fighters have been instrumental in helping his depleted army inflict key defeats over the rebels in the past year.

Assad touched on the need to rebuild Syria’s economy and to continue to forge the localized cease-fires that have helped return much of the central and western part of the country to government control.

His triumphalist speech, however, contained no hint of a willingness to compromise with his political opponents, including those who had peacefully sought to bring about reforms, inspired by Arab Spring revolts occurring elsewhere.

“The falsely named Arab Spring is dead, and we don’t even need a funeral for it,” he scoffed.

“Many didn’t carry weapons, but they are as dangerous as terrorists,” he added, in a reference to the democracy activists, most of whom are in prison or in exile.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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