Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is to be sworn in Wednesday for a new term in a war-ravaged country, as other conflicts in the turbulent region hog the international community’s attention. Assad will be sworn in for another seven-year term at his palace overlooking the capital, more than three years into a war that has killed more than 170,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
The 48-year-old autocrat won a June 3 election slammed as a “farce” by detractors, as his troops continue to pound rebel-held areas, now focusing on Aleppo in the north. During the first two years of the anti-Assad armed revolt, opposition backers in the West and the Arab world repeatedly insisted he must go. But the rise of the Islamic State (IS) has turned the tide and raised fears, especially in Europe, over the future.
“The situation in the Middle East is changing very fast. Unfortunately for Syrians, the instability has distracted the international community’s attention,” sighed Samir Nashar, a veteran Syrian dissident and member of the opposition National Coalition.
The world, he added, cannot make up its mind whether it should focus primarily “on the Islamic State, Iraq or Egypt”. Nashar said Assad has managed to portray his regime as a more acceptable option “in comparison to the Islamic State and extremism, especially in the eyes of European countries.”
Analysts say the rise of jihadists has been a “gift” for Assad, who from the outset in March 2011 branded the revolt against his regime as a foreign-backed “terrorist plot”. The Syrian leader will try to take advantage of the West’s fear of Islamic extremism and present himself as a bulwark against the phenomenon, they said.
Assad “is telling them: ‘I am your man in the region, I can face the terrorists and extremists, give me your support and your recognition’,” said Nashar.
Following in the footsteps of his father and predecessor Hafez, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years, Assad has ignored the Western calls for his ouster.
He refused to budge, even as scores of countries and organisations recognised the opposition as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Assad’s regime has been propped up with the tireless financial, military and diplomatic backing of allies Iran and Russia.
On the political front, Moscow and also Beijing have vetoed numerous UN Security Council resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on Damascus. On the ground, Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah has fought alongside the Syrian army, whereas rebels have remained divided and poorly armed. Weakening them further, rebels have fought IS since January, in battles that have killed more than 6,000 people on the two sides.
Meanwhile, IS brutality and its takeover of territories straddling Syria and Iraq have gripped the West’s attention. Assad is being sworn in at a time when the region is in flames, as Israel wages a deadly air war on Hamas in Gaza, Iraq’s central government is weakened by a jihadist-led offensive, and Libya slides further into lawlessness and chaos.
After the inauguration, the government has to resign and Assad will appoint a new prime minister to replace Wael al-Halqi. The president’s objective is to push on with his war strategy.
“Assad’s strategy is likely to revolve around holding the areas the regime already controls and to take back the whole of Aleppo,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“This will result in most areas in Syria being under the control of either the Islamic State or the regime, with areas in the south mainly held by the (rebel) Free Syrian Army,” she said.
“This is an equation that the regime can live with in the short run.”SAPA