American state senator meets with Syrian President Assad

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Syrian President Bashar Assad scored a minor, if bizarre, publicity victory Thursday, receiving a part-time state senator from America at a time when U.S. officials have repeatedly asserted Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule the war-torn country.

Outspoken Virginia state Sen. Dick Black — who resigned as co-chairman of Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign in Virginia just before his trip — told reporters outside Damascus it would be "beneficial" for the U.S. to speak directly to Assad.

Black has no role in official U.S. foreign policy, and it's highly unusual for a state lawmaker to contradict the State Department line. He 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. In 2014, he raised eyebrows when he sent a letter to Assad praising him. It was posted on the Syrian president's Facebook page.

The U.S. has called publicly for Assad to step aside in the wake of a brutal crackdown against demonstrations demanding his ouster in 2011. The country has since descended into all-out war.

Black, however, said there is no moderate opposition in Syria.

"I wish that the U.S. could take a stronger stand and recognize that most of these groups are simply terrorists," he said.

The senator called on the U.S. to lift its economic sanctions against the government, saying they have crippled the country's ability to provide its wounded with medical care.

But various human rights groups say the government and its allies have targeted hospitals as a strategy of war.

A report by Physicians for Human Rights last year said the Syrian government "systematically violated" the principle of medical neutrality by targeting medical facilities and doctors; detaining patients; and arresting, torturing, and executing doctors.

The Syria conflict has claimed over a quarter-million lives, according to the U.N., which stopped counting casualties last year. Around half of the country's population has been displaced.