RICHMOND — As a veteran politician, Virginia Sen. Richard H. Black is no stranger to the grip-and-grin. But this was something extraordinary: a handshake with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A photo of their encounter in Damascus on Thursday zipped around the world via Twitter, the smiling, silver-haired state senator grasping the hand of a man the White House calls a brutal dictator.
At the same time, a series of airstrikes was being unleashed on rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, destroying a hospital run by international aid groups and killing at least 60 people, including one of Aleppo’s last pediatricians. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he was “outraged” by the attacks.
The image of Black, 71, shaking hands with Assad prompted outrage from some people but praise from others who, like Black, see Assad as a protector of Syrian Christians. It also prompted knowing head shakes and chuckles in Richmond, where the outspoken Loudoun County Republican has a reputation for going all out for causes he champions.
“Dick Black, I love him, but sometimes Dick is ready to take on the world,” said former state senator Ralph K. Smith, a GOP ally from Roanoke. Smith compared Black to another friend and Virginian, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, and said Black’s friends can relate to the televangelist’s devoted, but sometimes exasperated wife.
“She was the most supportive wife in the world, but sometimes she just wanted to say, ‘Jerry, shut up!’ ”
Syrian news media reported the meeting between Assad and Black on Thursday, one day after it disclosed that the lawmaker was visiting the country. Black confirmed his visit Wednesday via text message but did not respond to messages Thursday about his reported meeting with Assad.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said that Black is “entitled to his views, but they do not reflect this administration’s policy on Syria.”
Black declined Wednesday to say who was paying for his trip but said he would discuss it upon his return. Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus, said no tax dollars were used or sought for the trip.
Misidentifying Black as a U.S. senator, Syria Online reported: “President Bashar al-Assad received on Thursday US Senator Richard Black and discussed with him the situation in Syria and the foreign-backed terrorism war waged against it.”
“The President highlighted during the discussion that the terrorist attacks which have hit several areas in the world prove that terrorism knows no borders,” the news site said. “For his part, the US Senator said it is important that the American people get acquainted with the reality of what is happening in Syria away from the disinformation practiced by some parties at the US administration. Black highlighted the necessity of putting efforts to lift the economic sanctions imposed on Syria which constitute a flagrant violation of the international laws.”
Currently, the State Department warns U.S. citizens “against all travel to Syria and strongly recommends that U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately.”
“However, we cannot prevent people from traveling there, and it is not illegal to travel to Syria,” said Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau, a State Department spokeswoman.
The White House declined to comment on Black’s trip but an administration official suggested that the senator’s support for Assad stemmed from ignorance.
“Assad has, time and again, proven himself to be a brutal dictator responsible for the deaths of his own countrymen, including Muslims and Christians,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters. “He has shown no respect for human life, and anyone who suggests otherwise is ignorant of the depths of his brutality.”
Black is one of the most conservative members of the Virginia General Assembly. He drew attention years ago for questioning the notion of spousal rape and for sending tiny pink plastic models of fetuses to fellow legislators ahead of a vote on an abortion bill. More recently, he has worked with women’s advocates to successfully push laws related to rape. But he ignited controversy again this year by equating Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” to “moral sewage,” a comment he made in support of a failed bill to require schools to notify parents of sexual content in course material and allow them to “opt out” their children.
A Vietnam veteran and former Pentagon lawyer who was chief of the U.S. Army’s Criminal Law Division while stationed in Germany in the 1980s, Black has sometimes used his perch in state politics as a soapbox for international affairs. He drew attention a year ago by sending a letter to Assad, thanking him for defending Christians. The Syrian president posted the letter on his Facebook page.
The gesture landed Black on the Islamic State’s enemies list — a distinction he touted in his re-election campaign last year.
The photo of the handshake circulated in the states via a tweet from Zaid Benjamin. He is a Washington-based reporter for Radio Sawa, a U.S. government-funded, Arab-language radio venture akin to Radio Free Europe. News of the meeting infuriated Assad critics, such as M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.
“Shame on State Sen Richard Black (R-VA)!” Jasser wrote on Facebook. “Follow the money. He’s very likely to be on the Assadist-Putin-Khameini payroll. The only thing more grotesque than the actual war criminals like Assadists or Khomeinists or ISIS is a so called American army veteran with the world’s information and freedom at his disposal who chooses to stump for genocidal tyranny.”
Virginia Democrats accused Black of having “dangerously clueless views on foreign policy.”
Republicans in the state were mostly holding their tongues, but some betrayed amusement. “I can’t comment on this. But I want to. So much,” Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) wrote as he retweeted the handshake photo.
Juliet Eilperin and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.