“In a statement to reporters . . . Black noted that during his visit to Syria he sensed the love of the Syrian people for [Assad’s] army and leadership, who maintained the unity of the country and restored security to it,” the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported on its website Wednesday. “Black criticized the American diplomats who do not stop threatening people with war, killing and imposing sanctions instead of looking for common ground for cooperation between nations and peoples.”
The Trump and Obama administrations have blamed Assad for chemical weapons attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in rebel-held areas during Syria’s civil war. But Black, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and retired Pentagon lawyer who closely follows news from the Middle East, regards Assad as a protector of Syrian Christians and a buffer against Islamist extremism.
Black’s assistant, Kirk Lundby, issued a statement saying that Black was traveling as a private citizen without support from any organization. He was not using campaign funds to pay for his travel, it noted.
“Senator Black is trying to facilitate peace,” Lundby said in an email. “Senator Black believes we need to end our involvement in the Middle East and allow peace to return.”
The Syrian Arab News Agency posted a photo of Black on its site, identifying him as an “American Senator” and misspelling his name in one reference as “Blake.”
“American Senator Richard Blake expressed his happiness over the return of security to Syria and his hope that the remaining terrorist spots will be eliminated, saying that the whole world should rejoice in the victories achieved by Syria,” the site said.
David Daoud, a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran, took note of Black’s visit, tweeting “Virginia State Senator Richard Black met with Bashar al-Assad in Syria today” along with a photo that appears to show Black sitting with Assad and another man.
In 2014, Black wrote a letter of praise to Assad, which the Syrian president posted on Facebook. He followed that with a visit to Damascus in 2016.
Black’s outreach to Assad has been controversial, with many critics noting that as a state legislator, he plays no role in American foreign policy.
State Del. John J. Bell (Loudoun), one of five Democrats vying to challenge Black next year, noted Black’s focus on Syria as he jumped into the race. As he announced his candidacy recently, Bell noted a 20-minute floor speech that Black gave this year as the Senate gathered for a special session on the state budget. In it, Black suggested that the Syrian president might have been framed for a suspected chemical attack.
“We were in dire need of a budget and debating Medicaid expansion — the most important issue Virginia’s faced in many years,” Bell said. “To go off and talk about Syria — which quite frankly, unless it’s a trade issue, I don’t think the General Assembly should be focusing on international issues — that, to me, was the epitome of not focusing on what this district needs.”
But the statement issued from Black’s office pushed back against the notion that the Syrian conflict does not affect Virginians, citing the U.S. troop presence in the Middle East.
“We’ve been at war for 17 years,” the statement said, “and troops from Virginia face enormous family stress from endless deployments to the Middle East. Recently, a helicopter pilot was killed in Iraq on his 9th tour of duty. Virginia is home to 27 military bases including the Pentagon, Norfolk Naval Base and Quantico Marine Base. Fort Pickett is home to the Virginia National Guard. They deserve to return home to their families.”