The rebel forces in Syria are in a “terrible, unfair fight” against President Bashar al-Assad’s military, Sen. John McCain said on Wednesday.
“Every single day, more and more extremists flow in — whether it be from Iraq, whether it be from Yemen, whether it be from Libya — they’re flowing in all the time,” the Arizona Republican told Anderson Cooper on CNN. “But they still do not make up a sizeable portion.”
McCain met with Syrian rebel leaders on Monday. He is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the war-torn country since the civil war began more than two years ago. More than 70,000 people have died in the bloodshed.
The senator notified the Obama administration of his trip and received security protection from the U.S. State Department, as well as from opposition forces on the ground.
McCain told CNN that he met with Gen. Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. He remained in Syria for several hours before returning to Turkey. In Syria and Turkey, McCain and Idris met leaders of Free Syrian Army units that traveled throughout the country to visit with him.
“It was a very moving experience to meet these fighters who have been struggling for over two years and who are very aware of the battlefield situation,” McCain, who has long called for American aid to the rebels, told CNN. “They are very disturbed about the dramatic influx of Hezbollah fighters, more Iranians, and — of course — the stepped-up activities of Bashar al-Assad.”
The biggest concern among the rebel leaders was that “they do not understand — they do not understand — why they don’t have funding” from the United States, McCain said.
He said the Obama administration could still provide arms to the rebels, despite concerns about such weapons falling into the hands of Islamic extremists or other terrorists.
“We can identify who these people are. We can help the right people,” he said. “Is there some risk involved? Absolutely? But is the status quo acceptable?”
He noted how Assad now had equipment from Russia, how the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has pledged its support of the regime, and how “the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the ground is not only supplying, but training, Syrians in Iran and sending them back.”
The senator reminded Cooper of last March’s congressional testimony of Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the outgoing commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East and South Asia, who said that toppling Assad would be “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years.”
“The Iranians are meddling everywhere in the Middle East,” McCain said on Wednesday. “They are doing a lot of mischief in trying to destabilize other nations.”
He said the United States stopped terrorism in Bosnia and Kosov in 2010 “without too much difficulty.”
McCain said his trip has made him even more determined to seek U.S. aid for Syria.
“When you look at the faces of these people and hear their stories, so many of them have lost family members, so many of them have lost friends. This is a pretty bloody, bloody business that they've been in.
“These are human beings that are trying to achieve the same thing that we have shed American blood and treasure for well over 200 years,” he said.
McCain told no one about his visit. His daughter, Meghan, expressed her displeasure about learning of her father’s visit on Twitter.
“Nothing quite like finding out via twitter that my father secretly snuck into Syria and met with rebel leaders,” Meghan McCain said in her Twitter post.
“The prerequisites of the trip was to not tell anyone about it in advance and not having it compromised,” the senator told CNN. “It would have put a lot of men and women in jeopardy if it had leaked out.
“I believe the United States can still intercede with our allies — and we can get rid of Bashar al-Assad and give these people a chance.”
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