An outspoken Republican state senator from Virginia has travelled to Syria and promised support for the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, who US officials have repeatedly said has lost the legitimacy to rule the war-torn country.
Sen. Dick Black's trip to a Middle Eastern country in the midst of a civil war and his comments in the face of official US foreign policy are highly unusual for a state lawmaker.
Black is a part-time state representative who has no role in official US foreign policy. Still, he has met with Assad government officials and said he would advocate for better relationships between Assad and the US, according to the official Syrian news agency.
"I will be Syria's voice," Black said, according to the news agency.
Black is one of the most vocal social conservatives in Virginia's General Assembly, and has drawn national attention for his opposition to abortion and gay rights. The former Vietnam War veteran and military lawyer dismayed Republican leaders in 2003 by sending fellow lawmakers small, plastic likenesses of a fetus to underscore his opposition toward abortion.
The state senator raised eyebrows in 2014 when he sent a letter to Assad praising him. It was posted on the Syrian president's Facebook page.
Black is expected to meet with Assad during his visit, the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan reported.
Syria's conflict began with mostly peaceful protests in 2011, but a brutal government crackdown and the rise of an armed insurgency eventually plunged the country into a full-blown civil war. The fighting has killed more than 250,000 people, according to the United Nations, which stopped tracking casualties several months ago.
While President Barack Obama has criticized Assad's leadership, Black has said Assad protected Christians and fought terrorist groups.
On his Twitter account, Black said he supported Assad because he is stemming the growth of the Islamic State group, sometimes called ISIS.
"If Assad falls, ISIS will secure Syria and march on Europe," the tweet said.
Last year, Black said the Virginia Capitol Police alerted him to a threat against him by the Islamic State group for his support of Assad. The state senator was featured in a magazine published by the Islamic state.
Black posted a link on Twitter on Wednesday to article written by an Iranian state-run TV news agency, which quoted Black as saying the Syrian civil war would "come to an end if the US stops training terrorist in Jordan, Saudi Arabia" and other countries.
Black met with a Lebanese Christian politician allied with the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group, which is fighting alongside Assad's forces in Syria, the TV news agency reported.
Both the Iranian state-run TV news agency and the official Syrian news agency erroneously referred to Black as a US senator.
Word of Black's travels drew mockery from political opponents.
"Doesn't surprise me one bit," said Virginia Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw. He added that Black shouldn't be trying to meddle in foreign affairs and said Republicans "would be raising holy hell if the situation was reversed."
Black was named by GOP presidential hopeful US Sen. Ted Cruz as a co-chair for his campaign in Virginia. Black was also recently elected to be a Virginia delegate at the Republican National Committee's convention this summer.