President Bashar al-Assad was sworn in for a fourth term on Saturday in war-torn Syria, after officially winning 95% of the vote in a rejected election abroad.
It was the second presidential poll since the start of a decade-long civil war that has killed nearly half a million people and damaged 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 major rebel stronghold, Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. .
An AFP correspondent in the village of Sarja saw men hastily working to remove bodies from the rubble of a collapsed house, before carrying one away in a red blanket.
Assad, 55, was sworn in 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 “proved the strength of popular legitimacy… conferred on the state,” Assad said in his inaugural address.
They “discredited the statements of Western officials about the legitimacy of the state”.
On the eve of the May 26 election, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy said the ballot was “neither free nor fair,” and the fragmented opposition. Syria called it a “farce”.
The war in Syria has displaced millions of people since the start of 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 homeland”.
With his campaign slogan, “Hope through Work”, Assad presented himself as the only realistic architect of reconstruction.
In his speech, he said that the focus is now on liberating areas still out of government control and strengthening the economy and people’s livelihoods.
After a string of victories against the jihadists and rebels with key support from the Russian and Iranian allies, government forces now 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 in effect in Idlib since March 2020, after the government’s latest deadly offensive against the region of around three million people was halted. But violations of this truce have increased in the south of the stronghold in recent weeks, the British observatory said.
Kurdish-led forces control much of the oil-rich east after expelling the jihadist group Islamic State from the region with US backing. And Turkey and its Syrian proxies hold a long strip of territory along the northern border.
Assad pledged to wrest the remaining Syrian territory from “terrorists and their Turkish and American sponsors”.
Assad is sworn in as the country faces a severe economic crisis. Over 80% of the population lives in poverty, and the Syrian pound has plunged against the dollar, causing inflation to spike.
In recent weeks, the government has raised the price of gasoline, bread, sugar and rice, while power cuts can last up to 20 hours a day due to fuel shortages. Across the country, 12.4 million people struggle to find enough food every day, the World Food Program has said.
The government in Damascus blamed the country’s economic woes on Western sanctions and the worsening crisis in neighboring Lebanon.
For more than a year, Lebanese banks have prohibited depositors from withdrawing their savings in dollars, which affects Syrian customers. “The biggest obstacle now is the Syrian funds frozen in Lebanese banks,” Assad said, estimating them at tens of billions of dollars.
The war in Syria has cost the country $ 1.2 billion, the charity World Vision estimated.
After the swearing-in ceremony, Assad met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, making the first visit by a senior Chinese official to Syria since early 2012. The two men discussed the possibility of Syria participating in Chinese Belt and Road infrastructure and trade. initiative, said the Presidency.
Assad was first elected by referendum in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria for 30 years.