DAMASCUS, Syria – Proclaiming the Syrian people winners in a "dirty war" waged by outsiders, President Bashar Assad was sworn in on Wednesday, marking the start of his third seven-year term in office amid a bloody civil war that has ravaged the Arab country.
Looking confident and self-assured, occasionally making jokes, Assad declared victory over "terrorism" and said countries that supported the Syrian opposition "will pay a high price."
The grandiose ceremony at the presidential palace in Damascus caps what has been a recent reversal of fortune on the battlefield for Assad's forces battling the rebellion against him. In the past year, the 48-year-old leader has managed to seize the momentum in the civil war, with his troops making steady advances on several fronts against outgunned rebels bogged down in infighting.
Syrian state TV broadcast what it said was a live ceremony Wednesday during which Assad took the oath of office. The TV showed Assad arriving at the People's Palace in the Qassioun Mountain, the scenic plateau that overlooks the capital from the north.
A band played the Syrian national anthem after which Assad was seen walking a red carpet past an honor guard into a hall packed with members of parliament and Christian and Muslim clergyman.
Wearing a dark blue suit and a blue shirt and tie, Assad placed his hand on Islam's holy book, the Quran, pledging to honor the country's constitution.
"I swear by the Almighty God to respect the country's constitution, laws and its republican system and to look after the interests of the people and their freedoms," he said to thunderous applause from the audience.
He then launched into a speech in which he praised the Syrian people for holding the vote and for "defeating the dirty war" launched on the Syrian people.
"They wanted it to be a revolution but you were the real rebels," he said. "They failed in trying to brainwash you, or break your will."
Throughout the crisis, Assad has maintained that the conflict that has torn his nation apart was a Western-backed conspiracy executed by "terrorists" — and not a popular revolt by people inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, seeking democracy and disenchanted with his authoritarian rule.
As the conflict slid into civil war, Assad refused to step down and last month, he was re-elected in a landslide victory in a vote dismissed by the opposition and its Western allies as a sham.
He won 88.7 percent of the ballots cast in the first multicandidate elections in decades. The voting didn't take place in opposition-held areas of Syria, effectively excluding millions of people from the vote.
Syria's civil war, now in its fourth year, has killed more than 170,000 people and displaced one third of the country's population.
Reflecting the security threat surrounding Assad, the inauguration ceremony was for the first time held at the presidential palace and not in the Syrian parliament as has been the tradition.
Syrian TV announced Wednesday morning he would be sworn in at noon. His previous term in office was to expire on Thursday, and he had been widely expected to be sworn in then.
Assad's wife, Asma, was also in the audience Wednesday, sitting alongside several women in the front row.
"Congratulations for your victory and congratulations for Syria and its people who have defied all kinds of terrorism," Assad said.
He mocked Arab and regional backers of the Syrian rebels fighting to topple him. "Whoever has supported terrorist whether in the West or the Arabs will pay the price sooner or later," he said.
Assad did not mention recent developments in Iraq and Syria, where militants from the so-called Islamic State group have taken over large chunks of territory, declaring it a self-styled caliphate.
He vowed, however, to continue to fighting "terrorism" to liberate Syrian cities from rebels, including Aleppo and Raqqa in the northeast. Raqqa is under the full control of Islamic State fighters.
"We will not forget our beloved Raqqa, which we will liberate from the terrorists, God willing."