The Cable

Top GOP Senators on Cruz Delegate Backing Assad: ‘Might as Well Have Gone Over and Met With Hitler’

Virginia State Sen. Dick Black is supporting the Texas senator at the Republican convention. He’s also a vocal supporter of the “butcher of Damascus.”

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), has made clear enough that his endorsement of fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for president is begrudging at best — he’s compared the choice between Cruz and front-runner Donald Trump to a choice between death by poison or gunshot. But what he really can’t believe is that a fellow Cruz supporter and former campaign official, Virginia delegate and state Sen. Dick Black, has travelled to Syria to show support for strongman Bashar al Assad.

“He might as well have gone over and met with Hitler,” Graham told Foreign Policy Thursday.

Black met with Assad regime officials and pledged to help improve the Syrian leader’s relationship with Washington during the trip, which was first reported by the Associated Press. He resigned as co-chair of Cruz’s campaign in Virginia shortly before, saying in a resignation letter provided to the AP that he wanted to avoid distracting from Cruz’s presidential bid, but also “attempt to restore peace and prevent the slaughter of Christians and other minorities at the hands of the armies of terrorists rampaging across the country.”

Yet Black, a Vietnam War veteran and former military lawyer, will still be headed to the Republican convention this summer to support Cruz, having recently been elected as a Virginia delegate backing the Texas senator. And his support for Assad, who has been accused of war crimes and slaughtering his own people in Syria’s 5-year civil war, dates back to at least 2014, according to the AP.

The Cruz campaign did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The Obama administration has said “Assad must go,” and that he no longer has a legitimate claim on Syria’s presidency. Graham and his close colleague on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman John McCain, (R-Ariz.), have been critical of President Barack Obama for not doing more to support the Syrian opposition and force Assad’s removal.

It is a rare move for a sitting state lawmaker to travel abroad and directly contradict official U.S. foreign policy, much less a lawmaker so closely associated with a presidential campaign. Rarer still are informal junkets to a war-shattered country in the middle of a bloody internecine fight.  

Asked whether Black’s trip and years-long support for Assad is a sign the Cruz campaign isn’t vetting its people, Graham, who dropped out of the presidential race early on and eventually backed Cruz, said he’s not worried about that implication.

“I’m not going to hold Sen. Cruz responsible for what this guy did,” he said. “All I can say is that if you think keeping Assad in power is good for our national security interests, I couldn’t disagree with you more … I just think anybody who supports Assad is supporting a butcher and a puppet of Iran,” he said.

Yet another ceasefire intended to allow negotiations for a political resolution to the conflict — including leveraging Assad out of power — broke down this week. A U.N. envoy recently revised upward the estimate of the number of people killed in the conflict to some 400,000, though the U.N. has also acknowledged it had stopped counting.

Unlike the Obama administration and his fellow Senate hawks, Cruz — who also serves on the Armed Services committee but has rarely attended since he hit the campaign trail — has tried to thread a tricky needle on Syria. He’s vowed to bomb Islamic State terrorists “until the sand glows,” but he’s also criticized the Obama administration for weakening “stable rulers” in the Middle East and creating the kind of power vacuum filled by terror groups such as ISIS, saying the U.S. is more secure with Assad still in power.

Like Graham, McCain has made no secret of his distaste for Cruz, but the former GOP presidential nominee has attempted to distance himself from the 2016 contest amid his own battle for reelection in the Senate. He was uncharacteristically speechless when asked about the Cruz delegate’s trip.

“I’m certainly surprised to hear that,” he managed, choking with laughter. “I’d like to hear more about that — obviously I don’t agree with that course of action.”

“Actually, I’m stumped for an answer,” he told Foreign Policy. “It’s very rare that I can’t think of a rapid response but on that one, I just … I can’t,” he wavered. “I don’t understand it.”

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency / Contributor

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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