Va. senator travels to Syria to shake hands with Bashar al-Assad

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.