Updated at 10:43 p.m. ET Wednesday 5/29
(CNN) - The U.S. State Department helped Sen. John McCain with his trip into war-torn Syria this week, the senator from Arizona said Wednesday.
McCain acknowledged on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" that the State Department and rebel groups were both involved in providing his security.
"I want to express my appreciation to the State Department," McCain said in the exclusive CNN interview. "The reality is if they had said no, I wouldn't have made this visit. They were very helpful and cooperative, and I'm grateful."
On Monday, McCain slipped across the Syria-Turkey border and became the first U.S. senator to visit the country since civil war broke out more than two years ago. He traveled roughly 1 kilometer inside Syria to meet with rebel leaders from different Syrian cities. He remained in the country for several hours.
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed earlier Wednesday in the daily briefing that Secretary of State John Kerry knew beforehand McCain intended to travel to Syria. While she said Kerry and McCain spoke about his trip Tuesday evening, she directed reporters to the senator's office for any further questions.
The White House was also aware of McCain's travel plans, Press Secretary Jay Carney said this week.
McCain declined to give too many details on the logistics of his trip but said the D.C.-based Syrian Emergency Task Force help set up the meetings with rebel groups. He credited Syrians for being "pretty brave in making this happen."
He did not detail how exactly the State Department helped him with security but said Salim Idris, a Syrian rebel general, accompanied him in and out of Syria from Turkey.
McCain is the leading voice in Congress for a greater U.S. role in ending Syria's civil war, which has been waged for more than two years. He has suggested establishing "safe zones" for Syria's rebels and taking out the regime's air assets, along with providing lethal weapons to Syria's opposition.
Meeting members of Syria's opposition face-to-face in the country they're fighting to control deepened his conviction that the United States must become further engaged in the bloody conflict.
The 2008 GOP presidential nominee said meeting 18 commanders with the Free Syrian Army provided an in-the-flesh reminder of the civil war's human cost.
"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," McCain said in the interview, speaking from Dubai. "This is a pretty bloody, bloody business that they've been in."
He said Wednesday his positions have hardened now that he's seen the fighters working to oust Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"Of course it's as you might imagine intensified because these are human beings that are trying to achieve the same thing that we have shed American blood and treasure for, for well over 200 years," he said.
Republicans and Democrats alike have called on President Barack Obama to ramp up support for Syrian rebels, who now receive nonlethal aid like food and medicine from the United States. In early April that aid was stepped up to include equipment such as body armor, night vision goggles and other military equipment that is considered defensive in nature.
In their meeting with McCain, leaders of the Syrian rebel forces pressed the United States to provide them with weapons to continue their fight against Assad. They specifically said they need ammunition, as well as antitank and antiaircraft weapons, McCain said.
"They do not understand why we won't help them," he said.
They also called for the United States to "take greater leadership in supporting the rebels in a more serious manner," according to Mouaz Moustafa, who helps run the group that organized McCain's trip.
"Their main message was that we are desperate for ammunition. We are desperate for weapons," Moustafa said.
U.S. officials from both parties have expressed concerns about American arms ending up in the hands of terrorists in Syria should the United States decide to provide rebels with lethal aid. Members of al-Nusra Front, which is designated by the United States as a pro-al Qaeda terrorist group, have joined the rebels in their fight against Assad.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul, for example, has been outspoken about his opposition to U.S. intervention in Syria. In a new opinion piece for CNN.com, Paul writes that arming the rebels would be "complicated and dangerous" and "could actually help the extremists."
He also took subtle jabs at McCain, pointing to the senator's switch in support from former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to the rebels seeking his demise.
OPINION: Helping Syrian rebels a dangerous risk, Rand Paul says
McCain told CNN that members of the extremist group represent only 7% of the 100,000 total rebel forces. "We can help the right people," he said. "Is there some risk involved? Absolutely. But is the status quo acceptable?"
Did he meet with the Syrian Government forces to balance his view point? How can one be objective if they don't hear both sides of the arguement? McCain fought in Vietnam and was a politician during the Soviet / Afghan war. He of all people should realize the futility of sticking our nose in others business. At best, the Syrian fighters will be ungreatful, at worst they will one day use our arms and training against US. I take back my vote for you as President. I am glad you didn't win.
obama encouraged all of these arabs to rise up against their governments and now he leaves them to be slaughtered, without help. 70,000 dead and counting. obama has already put his foot in it whether he admits it or not. they will remember how he let them all hang and get killed while he stood by and watched.
You are absolutely clueless. The President has the maturity to NOT get the U.S. into another war. Arming the Syrian rebels would be arming groups closely tied to terrorists organizations. Even you might be able to understand the problem with that idea.
Sen McCain went to Syria and perhaps he thought it would help the rebels if the Syrian government knew that Sen. McCain had entered Syria secretly and gotten back out. I really wonder if the government would even care because the government has allies that are pretty strong. Our intervention could signal to other groups in the region that we are interested in sending troops into other controversial countries. The reality is that our military cannot keep this pace going. Many have had three or four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Their families have seen these soldiers leave them too many times. No matter how good they are, and they are outstanding men and women in uniform, we cannot continue to ask them to go above and beyond so many times. Before we ask them to enter into another confrontation we need to ask how many people in Congress are willing to ask children to enlist in the military to fight these wars for them? Survey members of Congress before asking more of others than they ask of themselves?
When do we put pressure on our own Senators and Representatives to vote for legislation which will mean jobs, funding for schools, funding for our infrastructure which is crumbling more and more, and funding to train our workers for jobs using 21st century equipment? When do we stop asking more of our military and start asking that Congress to work the same number of hours as most Americans?
Sen. McCain must take the time to think about the issue. Does he really want to send troops to Syrian? What will the repercussions be? Is he willing to ask the military, their families, and their parents to fight another war. Right now we are trying to bring our military home. Perhaps he wants them to drive the tanks and other equipment across the region into Syria. I suppose it would save us the cost of bringing all this equipment worth billions of dollars back to the USA.
This man will do anything to get the U.S. into another war.
Coming from the war mongering senator who likes to sing about bombing Iran I find this ridiculous. Its already a known fact that Al Qaeda is fighting with the FSA not to mention that most the FSA will chant death to America regardless of their support. Also 2 of the men seen in these pictures with John McCain are actually wanted criminals guilty of war crimes. Probably best for John McCain to focus on the blood spilled by American soldiers and figure out how to stop that from happening,,,,
Shorter McCain: "For just $60B per year, you too can help starving, homeless defense contractors purchase a 5th home and feed their children foie gras for breakfast."
Eff. This. Noise. The GOP/Teatrolls are looking for another military industrial complex free crack giveaway to replace Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing more.
It's plain to see from the comments that there aren't much support for McCain's resolve.
The world already waited too long. The rebels had no choice but to ally themselves with dubious groups such as those Al Queda off-springs. Helping them now militarily might open Pandorra's box. Nobody can know how it ends and Syria might actually become a liability if it falls into the wrong hands.
Those of you who want war need to lobby for the military draft – but this time w/o any deferments for gender, college, or marital status. Empty out those private colleges and corporations. Let every American have a dog in the fight rather than just the 1% who are actually veterans.
Mccain, enough said. What has he done for this country or the state of AZ. Absolutely nothing. I hope they keep him.
John McCain Bomb Bomb Iran. What are you talking about? We have a disfunctional congress and you want to saddle the President and the US Army and the Ameican tax payer with another conflict. The answere is in the Arab League, United Nations and world public opinion.
I feel for the people of Syria this is horrible but use the bully pulpit.
Chinia is waiting for us to bankrupt ourselfs just like the Soviet Union did in 1980.
Pick your fights
Another crackpot Republican that is out out touch with reality.
If he's so 'Resoved' I suggest he pick up his weapon & go fight with his rebels instead of wasting my hard earned tax dollars or any other American lives!!
John McCain earned the right to "rattle chains". He earned it when he defended this country those many years ago. You on the other hand? You earn nothing but contempt with your shallow comments and your inferiority complex filled with childish rants.
That being said, McCain is on a fools errand and he knows it. His time in the senate is coming to a close. He knows that as well. The media would do well to leave this man alone instead of giving him one soap box after another with which to vent his inability to accept his fast approaching retirement. He has become a laughingstock by his own free will. It's unfortunate he doesn't understand that. And it is even more unfortunate the media keeps egging him on.
are you conservatives OK with letting old man McCain help the Muslims, especially ones who are labeled terrorist by their own government? ...as they say one mans freedom fighter is another mans terrorist. McCain is the terrorist as far as I'm concerned. he would make sure to get America hitched up to another war.
The rebels McCain wants the US to support today will only become the Taliban & Al Qaeda of next year, using our own American weapons to kill us with. We have been down this road SO many times. Stand down McCain!
How bout we start to "nation-build" right here in the good 'ol USA?
I hope McCain had approval from the President to go and chat with the Syrians.... as far as I know, he is not employed at the State Dpt or any other Government dpt. so it begs the question, who authorized his visit and why does he think he should be there, at all? A bit like Dennis Rodman going to N. Korea?
It sounds like the rebels gave McCain the same story like the Taliban did to the US to get the guns and support from the US to fight off the Russians in Afghanastan which as we know now was not the right move by the US. Syria sounds more like another Afghanastan all over again.
I don't agree with sending troops, but I would give them a number to call for drone strikes.
Bill Clinton showed how effective Air Power can be in Bosnia and Serbia, without sending US Troops to die.
We should help fight dictators when the people stand up against them for Democracy.
It is hard to say who is the bad guy in this. Do we need to stand up against Asad killing civilians? Yes, but I don't like the fact that the people fighting him are terrorist. Its a catch 22 because no one should stand back and watch innocent men, women, and children being publicly executed but who's to say the FSA isn't doing the same? Hezbollah is a sworn enemy of Israel and therefore us as well. How can we arm them? How cant we arm them to stop murders? Its a cluster
It seems to me that McCain is in love with war, for wars sake, and lacks any long term understanding ( or concern ) for consequences. Iraq would be a good example to lay at his door. He is also ridiculous as on one hand he is meeting with rebel leaders. Which 'leaders'? It is well reported that the FSA is a hollow shell, with the real fighters being Al Nusrah and Salafist types ( quite often not even Syrian ) which are AQ affiliates. Yet on the other hand he wants to drone AQ types wherever he finds them – except apparently in Syria. The intellectual agility to reconcile such discordant positions suggests cognitive malpractice.
McCain : GO and STAY home ! ! !
An Islamic caliphate?
No more wars damn it! How about your old butt lead the front line with your children and wife following!
Think about this: McCain is a Republican. Who are Republicans bought by? Companies with vested interests in wars: arms manufacturers and all the support companies making millions overseas. Also, he has poor judgement - read Sarah Palin. Not a responsible policy maker.
Hey John, 7% of 100,000 is 7,000 radical terrorists that may use the weapons we give them on us one day. Remember Afghanistan? American weapons helped hold off the Russians back in the day and years later used on our soldiers. History should teach us better......