Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) paid a surprise visit to Syria on Monday and spoke with rebel leaders allied with the Free Syrian Army about the ongoing conflict with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
McCain’s office confirmed his visit but declined to offer further comment or confirm details of the talks with rebel leaders in southern Turkey and northern Syria.
In contrast to the Obama administration’s restrained approach to an intervention, McCain has been a strong advocate for U.S. action in Syria, proposing airstrikes and “large-scale” training and arming of rebels in his Senate remarks this month. The senator’s visit came the same day that European Union officials reportedly decided to lift an embargo on providing arms to the Syrian opposition.
Elizabeth O’Bagy, political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a U.S.-based nonprofit providing support to the opposition, said in a phone interview from Turkey that McCain’s office approached the task force two weeks ago about visiting with rebel leaders.
The visit came as part of the senator’s trip to the Middle East, where he met with officials from Egypt and Lebanon, spoke at the World Economic Forum in Jordan and visited American troops in Turkey.
O’Bagy, who accompanied McCain, said the senator met with FSA commanders in two meetings in Gaziantep, Turkey, and in one meeting about half a mile inside the Syrian border at the Bab Salameh border crossing; there, he held talks with Asifat al-Shamal (Northern Storm Brigade), which controls the crossing.
O’Bagy said the rebel commanders told him, “They don’t need more pizza, they need weapons.”
O’Bagy said Gen. Salim Idriss, leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, and other rebel commanders asked that the U.S. consider giving heavy weapons to the Free Syrian Army, set up a no-fly zone in Syria and conduct airstrikes on Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.
Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime has come into the full spotlight over the last week as government forces, with the support of Hezbollah militiamen, mounted an offensive against rebels in Qusair, a town near the Lebanese border.
O’Bagy said McCain did not meet with as many rebel commanders as planned because of the Syrian government offensive in Qusair.
“Part of the difficulty in arranging this meeting is that many of the commanders McCain was hoping to meet were on the front lines in Qusair,” O’Bagy said.
McCain, for his part, asked the rebels how they planned to reduce the presence of Islamic extremists in rebel ranks, O’Bagy said.
The rebels told the senator that one of their biggest problems was protection against government air raids.
“In an ideal situation, they would have a no-fly zone, and anything that would stop the bombing from the air would be a huge benefit to them,” O’Bagy said.
She added, “One commander said one real importance of a no-fly zone or a safety corridor was they could actually move the transitional government into Syria and build a real viable alternative to Assad’s government.”
The rebel military leader Idriss told the Daily Beast that McCain’s visit was “very useful” and that the rebels needed American help.
“What we want from the U.S. government is to take the decision to support the Syrian revolution with weapons and ammunition, antitank missiles and antiaircraft weapons,” Idriss said. “Of course we want a no-fly zone and we ask for strategic strikes against Hezbollah both inside Lebanon and inside Syria.”
Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Syria who has withdrawn from the country during its two-year insurrection, made a similar visit to Syria this month.