U.S. Senator Meets with Syria's Assad, Claims West Is Planning Fake Chemical Attack

Republican State Senator Richard Black of Virginia has met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and claimed to have knowledge of an alleged Western plot to stage a chemical weapons attack there as a pretext for military action.

Black, an Army veteran, traveled to Syria on Wednesday to express his support for the government's war against insurgents and jihadis who rose up in a 2011 rebellion backed by the West, Turkey and Gulf Arab states. The U.S. and its allies have accused Assad of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons, but the Syrian leader and his Russian and Iranian allies have alleged that such incidents were "false flag" plots conjured up to justify foreign intervention.

As the Syrian military prepares for a major showdown with the final Islamist-held province of Idlib, U.S. officials have claimed that Assad may order the use of restricted poison gas, while Russia has claimed that the U.K. was working with local militants in an apparent attempt to stage such an incident. In an interview with regional media the following day, Black sided with the pro-Syrian government camp.

"We knew about four weeks ago that British intelligence was planning to work to stage a false flag chemical attack to pretend that it was the fault of Syria and to blame it on Syria and then to come to the rescue of Al-Qaeda," Black told Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese outlet that is supportive of the Syrian government and its allies.

U.S. Senator Richard Hayden Black of Virginia talks to reporters during a prior visit to the Syrian capital Damascus, April 28, 2016. That year, Black first met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has since then reconsolidated control over much of the country. AFP/Getty Images

After arriving in Syria, Black met with Assad himself Wednesday for the second time. The legislator first met the Syrian leader in 2016, when a Russian intervention the year prior had just begun to turn the tides of war in favor of Syria's beleaguered armed forces, which held only a western section of the country at the time. Black noted to Al Mayadeen that shortly after his first visit, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) took over the ancient city of Palmyra.

In their latest meeting, however, "President Assad emphasized that the pursuit of threats, sanctions and the support of terrorism are the key features of the U.S. role, noting that switching this role to peaceful industry rather than continuing to ignite wars and destabilize countries is more beneficial to America and its people," according to the Syrian presidency's Twitter account.

In response, "Senator Black said that the policies adopted by the successive U.S. administrations in the Middle East have deprived the peoples of the region of confidence in all American policy, stressing that the interests of America require us as people and U.S. officials to work to change that," according to the account.

"Senator Black expressed his admiration for what he saw in Syria during this visit of the return of life to many areas liberated from terrorism, and hoped for the return of peace and stability and to defeat terrorism from all Syrian territory," it added.

A map shows areas of control in Syria as of August 5 and details an upcoming Syrian military operation to retake the final, Islamist-held province of Idlib in northwest Syria. The U.S. has warned that Syria may be preparing a chemical weapons attack for the campaign, but Russia has warned that the West was plotting to stage such an incident as a pretext for foreign intervention. Institute for the Study of War/Suriye Gundemi/Reuters

Later on Thursday, Al Mayadeen claimed sources revealed that gunmen in the town of Sarmin were preparing to transfer chlorine to the Saraqib, also located in Idlib. The U.S. has accused the Syrian military of using chemical weapons in Saraqib in April 2013 and in nearby Khan Sheikhun in April 2017, when President Donald Trump ordered the first set of cruise missile strikes against the Syrian government. In April of this year, Trump again responded to reports of toxic gas use—this time in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta outside of Damascus—with military action.

On Wednesday, Trump denied saying he wanted to "f***king kill" Assad after the first alleged chemical incident last year as reported by journalist Bob Woodward in a book to be released on Saturday. Nevertheless, Trump did urge Assad to "be very judicious and careful" while retaking Idlib, because "if it is a slaughter, the world is going to get very angry and the United States will get very angry too."

Russia has launched large military drills in the Mediterranean ahead of what could be an imminent fake chemical attack and subsequent Western strike, according to Moscow. The U.S. military denied Russian reports that the Pentagon had bolstered its forces in the eastern Mediterranean, but warned it would be ready to respond to orders if necessary.

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Richard Black is a state senator from Virginia