May 30th, 2013
01:45 PM ET
1 year ago

McCain responds to Syria photo controversy

(CNN) – It would be "regrettable" if the identities of the men photographed with Sen. John McCain in Syria this week are confirmed to be individuals responsible for a year-old kidnapping, the Arizona senator's office said in a statement Thursday.

There has been confusion and conflicting reports about who exactly the men pictured with McCain are, and whether or not they were involved in last year's kidnapping. CNN has been unable to confirm the identities of the men in the photograph. Nonetheless, McCain's office was quick to reject speculation the Republican knowingly met with men accused of the abduction.

McCain entered the war-torn country on Monday and met with commanders of the Free Syrian Army, who are fighting forces loyal to Bashar al Assad for control of the country. He was the first U.S. senator to travel to Syria since the civil war broke out there two years ago, and told CNN after leaving that his conviction the U.S. must become more involved in the country's conflict had intensified.

Opponents of a greater U.S. role in Syria say the presence of terrorists among the rebels should prevent lethal aid from being delivered to opposition forces.

A report in the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper suggested a photo released by McCain's office from the trip showed the Arizona senator standing alongside two men accused of kidnapping 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in May 2012.

The paper cited family members of the kidnapped pilgrims – along with one pilgrim who was kidnapped himself and later released – identifying Mohamad Nour and Abu Ibrahim in one of the handout photos from McCain, which the Republican also posted to Twitter.

But on Thursday, McCain's communications director Brian Rogers strongly denied that McCain would knowingly pose next to men he knew were responsible for kidnapping pilgrims.

"None of the individuals the Senator planned to meet with was named Mohamad Nour or Abu Ibrahim," Rogers wrote in a statement. "A number of other Syrian commanders joined the meeting, but none of them identified himself as Mohamad Nour or Abu Ibrahim."

The Washington-based group Syrian Emergency Task Force, which helped coordinate the trip, did not arrange any meetings with the men named as kidnappers, Rogers said.

"A number of the Syrians who greeted Senator McCain upon his arrival in Syria asked to take pictures with him, and as always, the Senator complied," he continued. "If the individual photographed with Senator McCain is in fact Mohamed Nour, that is regrettable. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that the Senator in any way condones the kidnapping of Lebanese Shia pilgrims or has any communication with those responsible. Senator McCain condemns such heinous actions in the strongest possible terms."

The kidnapping in question took place in May 2012. The pilgrims - all men - were detained by an armed group in northern Syria after crossing the border from Turkey. They were on their way back from visiting holy sites in Iran.

The pilgrims' wives were not detained but sent to the city of Aleppo; from there they returned to Lebanon.

McCain's trip to Syria underscored a long-standing debate among U.S. lawmakers over whether the U.S. should provide arms and other lethal aid to rebels in Syria.

McCain has been the leading voice in Congress calling 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 in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.

"They do not understand why we won't help them," he told Anderson Cooper.

A bipartisan measure that would allow lethal weaponry to "vetted Syrian groups" passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month. The "Syria Transition Support Act" also calls for military training and both lethal and non-lethal arms for vetted groups; a $250 million "transition fund each year" through fiscal year 2015, and sanctions on oil sales to al-Assad.

But dissenters from both parties have expressed concerns about lethal arms ending up in the hands of terrorists, who could later use them against Americans or other allies of the United States. Republican Sen. Rand Paul has been outspoken about his opposition to U.S. intervention in Syria, part of his broader anti-interventionist stance. In an opinion article for CNN.com, Paul wrote Wednesday 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.

Among the groups that worry U.S. leaders is the al-Nusra Front, which is designated by the United States as a pro-al Qaeda terrorist group. Members of the organization have joined the rebels in their fight against Assad.

McCain told CNN Wednesday that members of the extremist group currently 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?"

CNN's Ted Barrett and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.


Filed under: John McCain • Syria
soundoff (131 Responses)
  1. Kimberly

    McCain had ZERO right to be there- WHY he was there, boggles the mind! He is NOT a representative of the White House, you know the MAN IN CHARGE? Who does he think he is? This is complete treason in my eyes, to go to this country, pose as something he is NOT, and not have permission from the White House- this TROLL!

    May 30, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  2. TheObserver

    So if the situation was reversed and it was Obama posing with Syrians who might be criminals, how would you react Republicans? How would you react? You know exactly what you would do. You would gather the lynch mob and start the media witch hunt and demonize the man unmercifully.

    But alas, it was a Republican, so all quiet on the hate front.

    Yes Repubs, your double standards when discussing your leaders is another reason its hard for intelligent people to take your opinions seriously. I'm not a fan of Obama, but I'm not looking for reasons to project my hate onto him.

    May 30, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  3. NEVER to VOTE REPUBLICAN again

    McCain stand down!

    May 30, 2013 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  4. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes

    None of the individuals the Senator planned to meet with was named Mohamad Nour or Abu Ibrahim," Rogers wrote in a statement. "A number of other Syrian commanders joined the meeting, but none of them identified himself as Mohamad Nour or Abu Ibrahim."
    ------------------------------------------------
    Really?!?! As if he will knowingly identify himself. Mr. Roger's, what intelligence and who provided you inteligencel that none of these guys are the men in question? We won't help them Old Man McCain because we don't know who they are. What part of that don't you get? How large are these so called "vetted Syrian groups"? Whose to say that the weapons that we provide them won't fall into enemy hands?

    May 30, 2013 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  5. just sayin

    just more baseless smear tactics (nothing new) from the leftist democrats because they have a president that refuses to lead and are envious of john mccains leadership on syria.

    May 30, 2013 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  6. PJ

    "They do not understand why we won't help them".
    --
    Well, sir. If you don't know, with absolute certainty, who you met with or were photographed with, how can you be
    sure who the "right" people are that we could help.
    That's the problem. We don't know, and obviously you don't either.
    Nobody is suggesting McCain condones "kidnapping", but we are "suggesting" he didn't know what he was doing.

    May 30, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  7. Sniffit

    "But on Thursday, McCain's communications director Brian Rogers strongly denied that McCain would knowingly pose next to men he knew were responsible for kidnapping pilgrims. "

    Now watch the difference: Dems won't accuse him of it either and no "investigation" will take place, even though the GOP would treat it as immediate cause for hearings and accusations of crimes and ethical violations if the parties were reversed.

    May 30, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  8. Ferret out the BS

    A good reason not to jump into this conflict with both feet. We don't have a good clear picture of who all the players are and this will undoubtedly come back to bite us.

    May 30, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  9. Anonymous

    @Kimberly, thank you very much, I agree. McCain had no right to be in Syria. He is not our President or Secretary or State and does not speak for our country.

    May 30, 2013 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  10. sonny chapman

    Sen. McCain, THANK YOU. You have made Exhibit -A of why America needs to go real slow in acting in this Shia/Shiite War presently going on in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon , Jordan & other "Nations" to be named.

    May 30, 2013 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  11. Name

    McCain is an erratic man doesn't know what he was doing just want to be a made up hero as he always is

    May 30, 2013 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  12. Rudy NYC

    While we're asking pointed questions, were any of the people McCain met with during his secret trip to Benghazi involved in the attack on the US consulate compound last September?

    May 30, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  13. penguin

    We have a history of assisting those who turn against. The most notorious examples include Castro who we helped overthrow the Cuban government and Osama Bin Laden who we armed to overthrow the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. We should just stay out of the Syrian conflict

    May 30, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  14. just askin

    obama would meet with people too but he can't find time to do it with all the campaign fund raisers, disaster photo ops and golf games he has scheduled. busy, busy, busy....

    May 30, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  15. Wake up People!

    What right did this old fossil have to do what he did? I wasn't aware that he was the POTUS or SOS. But this is ok because he's one of them.

    I want an investigation NOW!!

    May 30, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  16. Lynda/Minnesota

    "If the individual photographed with Senator McCain is in fact Mohamed Nour, that is regrettable. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that the Senator in any way condones the kidnapping of Lebanese Shia pilgrims or has any communication with those responsible. Senator McCain condemns such heinous actions in the strongest possible terms."

    This statement in itself is a good indication of why it would be better for Mr. McCain to not make these trips. He just doesn't know who he is dealing with when he leaves our borders.

    May 30, 2013 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  17. ST

    @ just sayin
    Do you mean leading is to fight in wars? Who told you that you lead by killing people? Yourself and McCain should show example of how to fight/lead, by joining your friends (the rebels in Syria) and fight together.

    May 30, 2013 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
  18. Gurgyl

    This old coot is an idiot, I mean plain idiot.

    May 30, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  19. Woman In California

    So, this entire article only proves once again, the PRESIDENT IS RIGHT on his handling in this matter?

    May 30, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  20. Evergreen

    This is what most Americans have been saying: we don't know who these people are and do the have the support of the civilian population.

    May 30, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  21. sonny chapman

    Did America pick the "right" side in Vietnam ?

    May 30, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  22. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    What a pompous idiot this McCain is.
    Nobody asked this fool to go to Syria and spend tax payers money unnecessarily. But that's alright for him to do because as Wake up People! said he's one of them.
    McCain and his klan have been trying for YEARS to get us to goto war with somebody, ANYBODY just so that they can turn right around, face the camera and tell the American public how THIS President is compromising our national security and doesn't care about the lives of our war-weary soldiers. Too simplistic a plan for us not see their intent.
    Get out of Syria's business McCain, you're NOT the SOS nor our President. all you're likely to do over there with your clueless self is put your foot in your mouth and get some more s hit started.

    May 30, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  23. Lloyd

    He said we can help the right one. Just how in hell can you tell which are the right ones? they lie, cheat, kill, and do just as the please and then ask for help. I don't trust any of them.

    May 30, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  24. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Woman In California

    So, this entire article only proves once again, the PRESIDENT IS RIGHT on his handling in this matter?
    ------------------------------------------------–
    That would be correct Woman in California which explains why Americans have always felt SAFE with THIS President at the helm.
    Our President is deliberate, he is NOT a cowboy with infantile knee-jerk reactions to every conflict that presents itself whether domestic or international. The GOPeeing Teatards and their klansmen know this and have been trying to rush him or trick him into taking inapporpriate action for the past five years. They have been pitifully unsuccesful in all of their attempts because they still refuse to believe that a Black man can be and is smarter than they are.
    Yes I said it.

    May 30, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  25. rs

    Further proof that there is no "right side" when one gets involved in Middle East conflicts. It is quite clear the GOP learned NOTHING from Iraq and Afghanistan, and have zero credibility in trying to involve the U.S. in yet another war.

    May 30, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
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