Syrian President Bashar Assad was sworn in Saturday for a fourth seven-year term in the war-torn country.
The May elections were described by the West and Assad’s opposition as illegitimate and a sham.
The swearing-in ceremony was held at the presidential palace and attended by clergymen; members of parliament; political figures and army officers.
Assad said the main impediment to investment in the country was money stuck in ailing Lebanese banks.
He said some estimates suggested $40 billion or $60 billion of Syrian funds were stuck in Lebanon.
“Both figures are enough to depress an economy like ours;” he said.
Lebanon is in the throes of a deep economic meltdown that is threatening its stability. Lebanese banks have locked depositors out of their accounts and blocked transfers abroad since the start of the country’s crisis in late 2019.
Many Syrian front companies had long circumvented Western sanctions by using Lebanon’s banking system to pay for goods which were then imported into Syria by land.
Assad also said Syria would continue working to overcome difficulties caused by the Western sanctions imposed over its decade-long war.
“Sanctions haven’t prevented us from securing our basic needs but they have created some choke points;” he said.
“We will continue to work to overcome them without announcing what methods we used before to do that or what we will use in the future.”
Syrian authorities blame Western sanctions for widespread hardship; including soaring prices and people struggling to afford food and basic supplies.
In power since 2000; Assad’s re-election in a landslide was never in doubt. His new term starts with the country still devastated by 10 years of war and sliding deeper into a worsening economic crisis.
The UN estimates that more than 80% of Syrians live under the poverty line. The Syrian currency is in a free fall and basic services and resources have become scarce or are offered at exorbitant parallel market prices. Fighting has largely subsided; but parts of Syria remain out of government-control and foreign troops and militias are deployed in different parts of the country.
Nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population is either displaced or living in neighboring countries or Europe as refugees. The war has left nearly half a million killed; tens of thousands missing and devastated the infrastructure.
The conflict that began in 2011 started after the government brutally cracked down on peaceful protests; turning the opposition against the decades-long rule of the Assad family into an armed rebellion.
Assad; targeted by widening sanctions and isolated by the West; is supported by Iran and Russia; who sent in troops and assistance that have propped him up throughout the war.
European and US governments blame Assad and his aides for most of the war’s atrocities. Assad calls his armed opposition terrorists while UN-led talks to end the conflict have lacked any progress.
Assad took over in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez; who seized power in 1970 in a bloodless military coup.
US and European officials have questioned the legitimacy of the election; saying it violated UN resolutions in place to resolve the conflict; lacks any international monitoring and is unrepresentative of all Syrians.
Assad garnered 95.1% of the vote in the election; in which officials said turnout was 78.6% of some 18 million registered voters. There were no independent monitors of the one-day vote. Competition was symbolic; with two candidates running against Assad.
Despite a ceasefire deal in place since last year; a war monitor and rescue workers reported government shelling of a village in the last opposition-held enclave in northwestern Syria that killed at least four; including two girls and their grandmother. The White Helmets; the civil defense in opposition areas; said two volunteers were wounded in the shelling in southern Idlib province.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; a war monitor with activists on the ground; put the death toll from the shelling of the village of Serjeh at five; including three children and a woman.
Violence has been rising in recent weeks in the enclave as government troops edge toward restoring control of the territory; home to nearly 4 million people.
The truce was negotiated in 2020 between Turkey; which supports Syria’s opposition and has troops deployed in the area; and Russia; the Syrian government’s main backer. At the time; it halted a crushing Russian-backed government air and ground campaign aimed at retaking the region.
UNICEF said 512 children were verified killed in fighting in Syria last year; the majority in the northwest where there are 1.7 million vulnerable children; many of whom have fled violence several times.