More than five years into the conflict that has shattered his country, displaced half its population and killed hundreds of thousands of people, Syrian President Bashar Assad denies any responsibility for the destruction.
BEIRUT — On the day after his 51st birthday, Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, took a victory lap through the dusty streets of a destroyed and empty rebel town that his forces had starved into submission.
Smiling, with his shirt open at the collar, he led officials in dark suits past deserted shops and bombed-out buildings before telling a reporter that — despite a cease-fire deal announced by the United States and Russia — he was committed “to taking back all areas from the terrorists.” When he says terrorists, he means all who oppose him.
More than five years into the conflict that has shattered his country, displaced half its population and killed hundreds of thousands of people, Assad denies any responsibility for the destruction.
Instead, he presents himself as a reasonable head of state and the sole unifier who can end the war and reconcile Syria’s people.
That insistence, which he has clung to for years even as his forces hit civilians with gas attacks and barrel bombs, is a major impediment to sustaining a cease-fire, let alone ending the war.
The new cease-fire, less than a week old, is already tenuous, with attacks resuming across the country and aid meant for besieged residents of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, still stuck at the Turkish border.
It has also made Assad a central paradox of the war: He is secure and kept in place by foreign backers as his country splinters, although few see the war ending and Syria being put back together as long as he stays.
Although he remains a pariah to the West and scores of militant groups continue to fight to oust him, even his opponents acknowledge he has navigated his way out of the immediate threats to his rule, making the question of his fate an intractable dilemma.
The rebels are unlikely to stop fighting as long as the man they blame for most of the war’s deaths remains.
But fear of what might emerge if Assad is ousted has deterred many Syrians from joining the insurrection and may have helped prevent countries like the United States from acting more forcefully against him.
The result has been a crushing stalemate. Assad’s standing as leader of Syria is diminished — and yet stable.
“The problem is that he cannot win, and at the same time he is not losing,” said Samir Altaqi, director of the Orient Research Center in Dubai. “But at the end of the day, what is left of Syria? He is still the leader, but he lost the state.”
Recent events give the impression that Assad has succeeded in muddling through, without being held accountable.
August came and went with little mention of the anniversary of the chemical attacks by his forces that killed more than 1,000 people in 2013.
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Turkey, a key backer of the rebels, dropped its demand that he leave power immediately, and the United States has stopped calling for his removal. And the day before Assad’s birthday on Sept. 11, for which his supporters created a fawning website, the United States and Russia announced a new cease-fire agreement with surprising benefits for Assad.
Besides making no mention of his political future, the agreement brought together one of his greatest foes, the United States, with one of his greatest allies, Russia, to bomb the jihadists who threaten his rule.
Years ago, few assumed Assad would join the ranks of the world’s bloodiest dictators.
Self-effacing and educated as an ophthalmologist, he had not planned on a political career but was summoned from London by his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, when the heir apparent, Bashar’s elder brother, Bassel, died in a car accident in 1994.
After Bashar succeeded his father as president in 2000, many hoped he would reform the country.
But those hopes dwindled, evaporating entirely with the start of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when Assad sought to quell initially peaceful protests with overwhelming violence.
The conflict escalated.
Despite widespread opposition to his rule, a combination of factors has enabled Assad to persevere, analysts say. His foes have remained divided and have failed to convince many Syrians, especially religious minorities, that they would protect their rights or run the country better than Assad.
As continuous battles have ground down his forces, Assad has been the beneficiary of significant military support from Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — aid much more significant than what the United States and its allies have given the rebels.
And the rise of jihadi organizations such as the Islamic State group and the Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, recently renamed the Levant Conquest Front, have led many Syrians and some of Assad’s international opponents to conclude that he is the lesser evil. While he may be brutal to his people, the thinking goes, he does not directly threaten the West.
His victory tour Monday showcased the desolation of the town of Daraya, a longtime rebel stronghold whose remaining residents were bused out last month after an extended siege by government forces.
A reporter stopped him for questions, and Assad spoke in soft tones about reconciliation and reconstruction. He mocked his foes as “rented revolutionaries,” a dig at their foreign backing, and laughed at his turn of phrase.
His entourage got the cue and laughed too.
For many Syrians, the message was clear.
“He is a man who wanted to show all Syrians that this would be their luck if they opposed him,” said Murhaf Jouejati, chairman of the Day After organization, which aims to prepare Syrians for a democratic future.
Malik Rifai, an anti-government activist from Daraya now displaced to northern Syria, said he felt numb watching Assad walk the streets of his empty hometown, but shared a video of a flock of birds that had flown over as residents were leaving. He interpreted it as a sign that they would return, he said.
“Those birds were a deep message from heaven, whereas Bashar’s presence was just a parade, showing the muscles of a weak person,” Rifai said in an online chat.
Assad’s dark suits and calm tones have given him a public image more sophisticated than that of other Arab autocrats like Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who often brandished weapons and gave thundering speeches, threatening their enemies.
“He’s a different kind of bloodthirsty dictator, the kind who shops online on his iPad,” said Nadim Houry, who oversaw the work of Human Rights Watch on Syria for a decade. “He’s sort of Arab dictator 2.0.”
His perseverance has frustrated those who feel Assad should be held accountable.
“The fact that many leaders are considering or willing to deal with him today as if he has not gassed his own people or tortured thousands to death is an indictment of the current policy environment across the world,” Houry said. “There is a level of cynicism, a lack of ambition.”
Some analysts note weaknesses in Assad’s position.
After years of war, he holds less than half of Syria’s territory and his forces are depleted, making it hard for them to seize and hold new areas.
Military aid from Iran and Hezbollah on the ground and from Russia in the skies has held off rebel advances, but it has also made him more dependent on foreign powers looking out for their own interests.
Diplomats who track Syria say that while Iran remains committed to Assad, the Russians could negotiate him away if their interests were protected. And signs of Russian displeasure with Assad have occasionally surfaced.
In June, Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, visited Syria apparently without informing Assad that he was coming, a major embarrassment for a president who speaks often of national sovereignty.
“A pleasant surprise!” a beaming Assad said in a video of the meeting. “I did not know that you were coming in person.”
But Assad still has significant support in areas he controls, including among many Syrians who want the war to end and see no alternative to his rule.
“If God gives him life, I see that he’ll be president until Syria comes back the way that it was,” said Bouchra Al-Khalil, a Lebanese lawyer who meets regularly with Syrian officials and knows Assad.
She dismissed the idea that the violence of Assad’s government would make Syrians reject him after the war.
“People love their homeland,” she said. “All that hate and aggression will go away in the end.”