Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been sworn in and set out his plans for a new seven-year term, after his victory in an election that affirmed his grip on power more than three years into Syria’s civil war.
After taking the oath of office before a Koran and the constitution, the president of 14 years delivered a defiant speech, vowing to recover all Syria from insurgents.
He repeatedly took aim at the West and Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab monarchies who have funded and armed the rebels that have taken control of much of the north and east of the country but failed to topple him in Damascus.
“Soon we will see the Arab, regional and Western states that supported terrorism pay a high price,” he said in the speech at the presidential palace in Damascus.
The Syria war has been the battleground for a sectarian struggle between groups supported by Sunni Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Mr Assad’s government backed by Shia Iran.
Last month it spread to Iraq, where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) surged across the border, seized cities, changed its name to the Islamic State (IS) and declared its leader ruler of all Muslims.
IS has officially been rejected as a terrorist group by the Gulf states that support other Sunni fighters in Syria, but Syria, Iraq and Iran all blame the Gulf kingdoms for supporting the wider Sunni militancy that feeds it.
Since advancing in Iraq, ISIS has also expanded its reach in Syria, using weapons seized from the fleeing Iraqi army to fight against rival rebel factions in Syria.
Four decades of Assad rule
Mr Assad took power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez who ruled for three decades.
He has held firmly onto control in Damascus since the revolt began, defying confident predictions by Western leaders, including US President Barack Obama, that he would be swiftly toppled.
The revolt, which began with pro-democracy protests in 2011 that Mr Assad dismissed in his speech as the “fake Arab Spring”, rapidly descended into sectarian civil war in which more than 170,000 people have been killed.
According to the United Nations, 10.8 million Syrians now urgently need aid.
Western countries lined up from the outset behind the rebels that opposed Mr Assad, but unlike in the case of Libya, where NATO jets helped bring down dictator Muammar Gaddafi, they have refused to provide overt military support.
Although the rebels made early gains, Iran and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah Shia militia came to the aid of Mr Assad’s forces, helping them reclaim territory.
Meanwhile, the rise of Sunni jihadists among the rebels has dampened Western enthusiasm for aiding Mr Assad’s enemies, led to infighting within the rebel ranks and bolstered Mr Assad’s assertions that his government is fighting extremism.
Mr Obama threatened air strikes last year after blaming Mr Assad for a poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb.
But the United States called off the operation when Mr Assad agreed to give up chemical arms, effectively ending any threat that the West might use force to remove him.
Western countries dismissed last month’s election as a sham, but Mr Assad’s victory affirmed him in power and shut down any talk of a negotiated settlement that would see him step aside.
“I repeat my call today to those who were misled to put down their guns, because we will not stop fighting terrorism and striking it wherever it is until we restore security to every spot of Syria,” said Assad.
Mr Assad’s inauguration featured the display of carefully orchestrated adulation that has been typical of his infrequent public appearances since the start of the war. Dressed in a dark suit, he arrived at the presidential palace in a black car and walked down a red carpet as a military band played music.
A man in army fatigues accompanying him along the red carpet was described by an announcer as his rarely-seen brother, Maher al-Assad, who has acquired a fearsome reputation as commander of the Syrian army’s Republican Guard and 4th Division, elite units largely composed of men from the family’s minority Alawite sect.
The president entered a hall to applause from loyal politicians and religious leaders.
Mr Assad’s government says the election is proof of its willingness to enact democratic reforms.
He ran against two other candidates, making it the first contested presidential election in Syria’s history, after four decades of referendums to approve the appointment of Mr Assad and his father.