Local state Sen. Dick Black (R-13th) has found himself in local and national headlines because of a two-page letter he sent to controversial Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Black's letter, which was posted in late May on the Syrian president's Facebook page, raised eyebrows for its complimentary language of a leader who many experts claim has used chemical weapons to kill some of his citizens in the nation's ongoing civil war. Well more than 100,000 people have died in the conflict since it began in 2011.
The senator's correspondence lauds the Syrian leader and his national army “for its heroic rescue of Christians in the Qalamoun Mountain Range" of Syria
In the letter, Black states: "I pray that your army will drive the jihadists from Syria, so that Syrians of all faiths may live together in peace.”
"Until then," he continued, "I pray that the Syrian armed forces will continue to exhibit extraordinary gallantry in the war against terrorists. Please convey my personal thanks to the Syrian Arab Army and Air Force for protecting all patriotic Syrians, including the religious minorities who face death at the hands of the foreign jihadists."
While President Barack Obama has called for Assad and his regime to step down, Black said the alternative to Assad's leadership – al-Qaeda, in Black's eyes – is far worse.
Black claims "few Americans realize that the rebels in Syria are dominated by our arch-enemy, al-Qaeda."
Representing portions of Purcellville, Leesburg, Ashburn and Prince William County, Black is known as a hard-line Christian conservative in Virginia's General Assembly.
Purcellville Mayor Bob Lazaro, who last year traveled to Turkey to meet with Syrian refugees as part of a community-organized blanket drive, called the letter to Assad “unbelievable” and likened it to “sending a thank you note to Stalin.”
“I think of the little kids I saw and the families I met,” Lazaro said. “I've seen the pain in their faces ... I've seen Syrian kids [the same age as those] who were gassed by their own government.”
To send Assad a letter of thanks is "unfathomable," said the mayor.
Lazaro disagreed with Black's analysis that al-Qaeda would be the de factor replacement if Assad's regime were to step down. This comment led the senator to question how much time Lazaro has spent learning about the war.
Black, a retired Marines colonel, said the Syrian conflict is something he studies “a couple hours a day, seven days a week.”
The letter to Assad, Black said, was about thanking President Assad for rescuing Christians and bringing the complicated Syrian war to the forefront of public consciousness.
The Syrian war, Lazaro said, is “certainly a complex issue,” but no president who “displaces and gasses his own people” deserves praise.
The Purcellville mayor, elected in nonpartisan elections, considers himself a moderate. He has endorsed candidates in state and federal elections from both major parties.
Virginia Democrats were quick to condemn Black's letter and highlight past controversies involving the GOP lawmaker.
In 2011, Black sent plastic models of fetuses to colleagues to sway votes on an abortion bill, and he's made several inflammatory remarks about the gay community and spousal rape.
"It is bizarre that state Sen. Dick Black would send a letter to the President of Syria. Especially one that heaps praise on President Bashar al-Assad, a man who has presided over terrible massacres and atrocities, including gas attacks that killed hundreds of his own people," state Sen. Donald McEachin, the Democratic Caucus chairman, said in a statement. “As state legislators we should be spending our time on issues here in Virginia."