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Syria's Assad takes oath after criticized re-election

  • Published at 08:33 pm July 17th, 2021
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
President Bashar al-Assad arriving to the swearing-in ceremony for his fourth term, in the capital Damascus, on July 17, 2021 AFP

The election extending Assad's grip on power was the second since the start of a decade-long civil war that has killed almost half a million people

President Bashar al-Assad took the oath of office for a fourth term in war-ravaged Syria on Saturday, after taking 95% of the vote in a controversial election dismissed abroad.

The vote extending Assad's grip on power was the second since the start of a decade-long civil war that has killed almost half a million people and battered the country's infrastructure.

Assad was sworn in on the constitution and the Koran in the presence of more than 600 guests, including ministers, businessmen, academics and journalists, organisers said.

The elections "have proven the strength of popular legitimacy that the people have conferred on the state," 55-year-old Assad said, in his inauguration speech.

They "have discredited the declarations of Western officials on the legitimacy of the state."

On the eve of the May 26 election, 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 "farce."

Syria's war has displaced millions of people since starting in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.

'Illusion'

Assad called on "those who bet on the demise of the homeland" to return to its "embrace."

"We tell each and every one of them, you are exploited by the enemies of our country against your own people," he said. 

"The revolution with which they deceived you is an illusion."

With his campaign slogan, "Hope through work", Assad had cast himself as the sole viable architect of a reconstruction phase for the troubled country.

President Bashar al-Assad delivering a speech at the swearing-in ceremony for his fourth term, in the capital Damascus, on July 17, 2021 | AFP

In his speech, he set his priorities moving forward.

"During more than 10 years of war, our concerns were many, and dominated by security and the unity of the homeland," he said.

"But today, these (concerns) are mostly liberating those parts of the homeland that still need to be, and facing the repercussions of the war for the economy and people's livelihoods."

After a series of victories against jihadists and rebels, Russian-backed government forces today control two-thirds of Syria.

But several key parts of the country remain beyond their control.

Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate runs the opposition bastion of Idlib in the northwest, where Turkish-backed rebels are also present.

A Turkish-Russian ceasefire has largely been held there since March 2020, after halting a deadly government offensive that displaced a million people from their homes.

Kurdish-led forces control much of the oil-rich east after expelling the Islamic State jihadist group from the region with US backing.

And Turkey and its Syrian proxies hold a long strip of territory along the northern border.

'Frozen funds'

Assad takes his oath as the country faces a dire economic crisis.

More than 80% of the population live in poverty, and the Syrian pound has plunged in value against the dollar, causing skyrocketing inflation.

In recent weeks, the government has hiked the price of petrol, bread, sugar and rice, while power cuts can last up to 20 hours a day amid fuel shortages.

Nationwide, 12.4 million people struggle to find enough food each day, the World Food Program says.

The Damascus government has blamed the country's economic woes on Western sanctions and a deepening crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.

Banks in neighbouring Lebanon have for more than a year forbidden depositors from withdrawing their dollar savings, affecting Syrian clients using Lebanon as a conduit for the hard currency into government-held areas.

"The biggest obstacle now is the Syrian funds frozen in Lebanese banks," said Assad, estimating them to amount to tens of billions of dollars.

He said this came on top of the punitive measures imposed by Western countries, which he described as "a suffocating siege" on the country.

Assad was first elected by referendum in 2000 following the death of his father Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria for 30 years.