BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar 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 in the region that has helped cement his hold on power.
With jihadists rampaging across neighboring Iraq and the focus of Western powers shifting to containing terrorism, a relaxed and confident Assad made it clear that he no longer perceives a challenge to his 14-year-old presidency, now extended by another seven years after 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 warning that the revolt against him was 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 an hour-long speech, delivered at his mountaintop presidential palace overlooking Damascus and purportedly broadcast live by state television.
“Isn’t what we see now in Iraq, Lebanon and other countries of the ‘spring' exactly what we warned against repeatedly?” he asked. “We will see later how the West will pay the price, too.”
The ceremony culminated a year in which Assad turned the tide of the three-year-old revolt, which began with peaceful demonstrations in 2011 but mutated into an armed rebellion after he ordered troops to crush them. Extremists, notably those with the al-Qaida affiliate that fought U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, soon joined the revolt, and the tenor of the conflict changed.
Whether Assad’s confidence is warranted is only somewhat in question, analysts say. Islamic State extremists overrunning large chunks of Iraq are also extending their hold over swaths of territory 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, Assad loyalists 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 divert Western attention.
“Containing the spread of ISIS 1 / 8Islamic State of Iraq and Syria 3 / 8 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, referring to the earlier incarnation of the Islamic State. “Assad’s new regime is seen as a more distant problem.”
Assad also pledged to retake the northern city of Aleppo, a strategic prize from which more-moderate rebels have been squeezed in recent months by a sustained government onslaught.
“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 dangerous as terrorists,” he added, in a reference to the democracy activists, most of whom are in prison or in exile. “We should hit them with an iron fist.”
For the international powers backing the rebellion, he expressed contempt. “Research centers will study their stupid decisions for years to come,” he said.