DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to defeat his enemies no matter how many battles he faces, saying on Friday he feels empowered after being re-elected for a fourth seven-year term.
Assad was elected in a predictable landslide Thursday. The presidential vote was described as illegitimate and a sham by the West and his opponents.
In a nine-minute televised victory speech, Assad said the public had challenged enemies of Syria, and those questioning the election’s legitimacy by turning out in large numbers to vote for him, calling it a “fighting spirit.”
“People choosing me to serve for the next constitutional period is a great honor for me,” a bespectacled Assad said. “I am certain that with this fighting spirit we will be able to defeat all our enemies no mater how many the battles are or how hard the road is.”
Syria’s parliament speaker, Hammoud Sabbagh, announced the final results late Thursday, saying Assad garnered 95.1% of the vote. He said turnout stood at 78.6%, in an election that lasted for 17 hours on Wednesday with no independent monitors.
Syria observers said the official number of participants in the vote — over 14 million — appeared to exceed the number of Syrians living in government-held areas.
In a country ravaged by a 10-year-old conflict, areas controlled by rebels or Kurdish-led troops did not hold the vote. At least 8 million people, mostly displaced, live in those areas in northwest and northeast Syria. Over 5 million refugees — mostly living in neighboring countries — have largely refrained from casting their ballots. Syria’s pre-war population stood at 23 million.
Assad’s victory comes as the country is still devastated by the conflict. Fighting has subsided but the war is not over. An economic crisis is worsening and over 80% of the population lives below the poverty line, while the local currency is in a free fall.
Assad, close associates and government officials are facing widening Western sanctions, added to already existing ones that have escalated as the war unfolded. European and U.S. governments blame Assad and his aides for most of the war’s atrocities.
For the third straight day, there were celebrations Friday in Damascus in rallies that appeared to be organized. They featured demonstrators raising Syrian flags and pictures of Assad, chanting: “God, Syria, and Bashar only.” They rallied on election day, after the results, and on Friday before Assad’s speech.
The election is likely to offer little change to conditions in Syria. While Assad and his allies — Russia and Iran — may be seeking a new seal of legitimacy for a president in office since 2000, his re-election is likely to deepen the rift with the West, driving him closer to Russian and Iranian backers as well as China.