2017 is shaping up to be a great year for tyrants—at least the one in Syria.
So says Virginia state Senator Dick Black, perhaps the most vocal cheerleader of the Bashar al-Assad regime in American political circles. He is hopeful that the new Trump administration will usher in a new era in Syrian-American relations, one in which the two countries play nice despite the inhumane violence that has wracked that country for years.
The shift in the way the United States interacts with Syria is an important microcosm of the greater forces at play in American foreign policy—the shattering of the current bipartisan consensus on which countries constitute America’s allies, on how to promote human rights, and on how to best intervene in world affairs.
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, there were hardly any boosters of the Assad regime among U.S. politicians. Accusations that the Syrian government tortured detainees, intentionally bombed civilian populations, and used chemical weapons against its own people have made the state an international pariah.
Nonetheless, Black made international waves in a 2014 letter to Assad to praise him as “heroic” for his supposed protection of Christian and Jewish minorities in Syria. This caught the attention of the Syrian government—earlier this year, the state senator cemented his Assad-boosting status by visiting Damascus for an hours-long conversation with the Syrian dictator.
After years as a sole voice in support of Assad, the Virginia lawmaker does not believe he will be alone much longer: The tide is slowly turning, he says, led by the election of Donald Trump, whose foreign policy has focused on shifting the United States away from foreign interventions, including in Syria—so much so that Assad has called the president-elect a “natural ally” on the issue of terrorism.
“Donald Trump made it fairly clear during the campaign that he rejects the strategy of regime change,” the state senator told The Daily Beast in a lengthy interview Wednesday.
The United States is currently bombing ISIS targets in Syria while simultaneously calling for Assad’s removal. America currently intrudes on Syria’s airspace and territorial waters as if Assad’s regime was not a real, international actor, Black claims, and he hopes that the Trump administration will “move to treat Syria as a nation, not as if it doesn’t exist.”
Black, at 72 years old, has spent 13 years as a Virginia state lawmaker and another 32 years in the military, first as a pilot, then a forward air controller, then as a lawyer. And he believes he’s doing the right thing, professing support for Assad because of a “very intense passion for stopping these regime change wars” and a desire for the bloodshed to end.
While the Obama administration has consistently argued that Assad must step down if there is to be any end to the Syrian Civil War, the incoming Trump administration is more apathetic about the Syrian leader. It’s this view that will trickle down to the American public, Black said, meaning popular opinion about the Syrian dictator will soon change.
“Part of the reason is that the press receives a tremendous amount of information from the government. The path of least resistance is to repeat what the government says,” Black predicted. “If the government is making up a certain spin that demonizes a certain country, that tends to flow through the media. You’re going to see a different narrative. You’re going to see Syria treated not as… a regime” but as a normal nation.
The mood is already beginning to change in Congress: Black is planning a return visit to Syria in 2017, but this time with lawmakers in tow. The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations has already commented favorably on this idea, Black said, and he planned to bring around three members of Congress with him.
“The visit will be welcomed by Syria. I know for a fact this will be the case,” he told The Daily Beast. “It should not trouble anyone that there are members of Congress that go and visit and see what’s happening on the ground.”
Black did not name the lawmakers that would be present on the trip, but listed off the few members of Congress he believes will be the friendliest to the Syrian regime in the coming year.
At the top of the list is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat who has distinguished herself as one of the nation’s most pro-Assad politicians and has already met with Trump to discuss the direction of the war there. Another name Black mentioned is Rep. Thomas Garrett, an incoming member of Virginia’s 5th Congressional District that he endorsed in the 2016 elections.
“I think what you’re going to see… [is] members of Congress shifting,” Black predicted.
But this support for Assad has its blinders and its convenient excuses. Black believes that Assad is “extremely popular across the country,” notwithstanding the violence that erupted when the Syrian government fired on peaceful demonstrators in 2011 and has raged on ever since.
The Syrian dictator was a “soft-spoken” but “precise” man, his wife a “delightful woman,” Black claims—and the primitive barrel bombs that have indiscriminately been thrown out of government helicopters, terrorizing civilian populations with their randomness, are merely “not terribly accurate.”
Black at once dismisses evidence of the Assad regime’s torture and killing of dissidents, while also justifying war crimes as a natural part of conflict.
“It is a war and a very intense war, and just as with the American Civil War you could find war crimes on both sides,” he said. “I do not believe that President Assad favors any sort of widespread improper conduct… you’re not going to find any war that’s been fought where one side was utterly pristine.”
For all its willful blindness, Black’s thinking foreshadows the coming year, as his beliefs about Syria align far more with the Trump administration’s than that of the preceding Obama and Bush administrations.
With the ascension of the president-elect, Black’s long journey alone in the wilderness is coming to an end.