President Bashar al-Assad begins a new seven-year term Wednesday looking to play up a string of battlefield victories while trying to win over war-weary Syrians and those fearful of jihadists.
His swearing-in after a controversial June election — held in government-controlled areas only in the midst of a raging civil war — comes with Western policy in disarray after Sunni militants captured a vast swathe of neighbouring Iraq, as well as a big chunk of eastern Syria.
The jihadist Islamic State group’s declaration of a “caliphate” was a propaganda gift for Assad, who has regularly portrayed himself as a secular leader and protector of Syria’s minorities.
The president will now try to capitalise on mounting war-weariness after more than three years of deadly conflict to sap support for the non-jihadists among his rebel opponents.
“Assad wants to consolidate his image as the victor,” said Khattar Abou Diab, Paris-Sud University professor of international relations.
The inauguration “will be a show of defiance against countries that demanded his ouster” ever since the eruption of the uprising in March 2011, Abou Diab told AFP.
An analyst close to the Damascus regime, Bassam Abu Abdallah, said that, three years on, Assad’s ouster is “no longer on the cards”.
Abu Abdallah, who directs the Damascus Centre for Strategic Studies, told AFP: “Even the Americans, the Saudis and the Qataris (who back the revolt) are no longer calling for that.”
Samir Nashar of the exiled opposition National Coalition said: “Bashar al-Assad continues to claim he is a legitimate president despite the victims and the massacres… He is holding on to a semblance of legitimacy.
“His message is clear: he will not leave power at any price.”
In the past year, the rebels have suffered a string of battlefield setbacks.
They were forced to withdraw from third city Homs after a withering two-year siege by Assad’s army and have suffered reverses around both the capital and second city Aleppo.
In the opposition stronghold along the Euphrates Valley in the east, rebel groups palatable to the West have lost control to the Islamic State.
– ‘Pyrrhic victory’ –
Brookings Doha Centre director Salman Shaikh said Assad “has the momentum now”.
After the inauguration, the president is likely to try to present himself as a legitimate leader to any Syrians who have remained neutral throughout the conflict, said Shaikh.
Assad will seek to “cosmetically… reach out… in order to win over those in the grey area.”
But “the regime is still a war cabinet… and the rebels will continue to fight.”
Karim Bitar, director of the Paris-based International and Strategic Relations Institute, said Assad will capitalise on fears of the jihadists while pressing his fightback against the rebels.
“He hopes the IS abuses will help him win over a population exhausted by three years of war,” Bitar told AFP.
Assad will “continue to take advantage of the West’s obsession with Islamism and try to portray himself as a partner in the fight against IS.”
At the same time, he will “press his counter-insurgency plan, which aims to take over major highways and big cities, while abandoning… the east of the country.”
But analysts say Assad faces an uphill task on the political front.
“Too much blood has been spilled… Regardless of the military successes, (Assad) will never be able to restore his legitimacy in the eyes of much of the population,” said Bitar.
“So what we’re really talking about is a Pyrrhic victory, won on the ruins of a country that will not accept the return of the status quo ante.”