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. VEW2012

    Shouldn't the people of Arizona retire this bumbling old fool before he does real damage? We don't need him off hopnobbing with criminals and talking us into another useless war.

    May 31, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  2. Rudy NYC

    Excuse me, Senator. But, those folks that you spoke to in Benghazi, where are they now? Were any of them promised things that we didn't deliver? Were any of them involved in the attack on the US Embassy compound there.

    I'm so glad this man lost the 2008 election. He shoots from the hip before he even knows what's really going on. He knows that the Russians have significant military interests with Syria. It's called a warm water, naval port. Try to look at the Syrian coastline using one of those web sites. A nice chunk of it is "blacked out". Guess why that is.

    May 31, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  3. Shivesh Sinha

    Even if McCain's office denies that he knew the guy he posed with (and I completely agree), it undoubtebly gives an idea of who McCain wants America to support-Potential threat to America itself. Let's not repeat Afganistan.

    May 31, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  4. rschier

    "Are we supposed to be quaking in our boots because Russia supports Syria?! The old Soviet Union used to support others that we helped trounce. Stop wetting your pants little one and let the adults sort it out."
    -------------------------------------------
    What variety of adults ? Laughing hyenas perhaps. Prime example of someone who can only
    think with what ever's in his pants.

    May 31, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  5. Jan

    Of course the Senator didn't knowing pose with kidnapper/terrorists – but hey he "knows the right people" would get weapons from us – just like he knew Sarah Palin would make a good vice-president. What has he been smoking? And for how long?

    May 31, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  6. Ed

    The real problemis McCain and for that matter the whole U.S. government doesn't have a clue who the good or bad guys trying to take over in Syria are and if any military support or aid would end up with the good or bad guys. By now the only thing that should be clear is that fighting for "freedom" to Muslims means letting radical Muslims take over control.

    May 31, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  7. Jan

    oops, knowingly

    May 31, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  8. Michael

    John. Seriously retire. It's time.

    May 31, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  9. Ralph_in_FL

    He needs to stop grandstanding.

    May 31, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  10. VEW2012

    Boy we are so lucky we dodged the bullet of McCain sitting in the Oval Office...Crazy old coot would have had us in 3 or 4 middle east wars by now.

    May 31, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  11. JASON

    To the guy who wrote
    "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...."

    Are you mentally challenged?

    1st , the election is over...

    2nd presidents are expected to show up during disaster.. I remember when the Boston Bombing happened , I heard teatards like you saying, why isn;t Obama there yet? Every disaster in the last few years teatards go.. why isn't Obama there yet.. of course Obama shows up , as you clearly stated....

    3rd...gold games scheduled? really? you want to go there? Ok lets.... you do realize Obama has taken a hell of a lot LESS vacation time than Bush right? Obama would have to serve 6 terms to try to match Bush vacation time.

    George W. Bush's vacation time (grand total)
    487 days at Camp David
    490 days at Crawford Ranch
    43 days at Kennebunkport Compound

    Total: 1020 days, more than 1/3rd of his presidency. Bush set the record for most vacation time taken by president.

    May 31, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  12. Sharon

    John McCain is an unpatriotic warmonger. He's become a lunatic over the years as well. It's shameful the way we, as a country, neglect our heroic Veterans and their families medically, financially, and socially. For once can we focus on our own people and give a hand-up to those who have fought and sacrificed on our behalf? Let's put money into programs that help our military and let Russia, Syria and the rest of the world sort out their own problems. Filthy Republicans – won't allow spending here but are eager to throw money at some obscure fight that means nothing to our safety and well-being. They probably own stock in military supplier corporations. Yes, they're making money hand over fist as long as we participate in perpetual war. Filthy and unpatriotic to the core!

    May 31, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  13. JASON

    To the guy who wrote
    "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...."

    really?

    1st , the election is over...

    2nd presidents are expected to show up during disaster.. I remember when the Boston Bombing happened , I heard teebs like you saying, why isn't Obama there yet? Every disaster in the last few years teebs go.. why isn't Obama there yet.. of course Obama shows up , as you clearly stated....

    3rd...gold games scheduled? really? you want to go there? Ok lets.... you do realize Obama has taken a hell of a lot LESS vacation time than Bush right? Obama would have to serve 6 terms to try to match Bush vacation time.

    George W. Bush's vacation time (grand total)
    487 days at Camp David
    490 days at Crawford Ranch
    43 days at Kennebunkport Compound

    Total: 1020 days, more than 1/3rd of his presidency or 33%. Bush set the record for most vacation time taken by president.

    May 31, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  14. Hugh G. Rection

    Time to put John McCain out to pasture.....he's become an embarassment.

    May 31, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  15. Thinkergal

    WhT is "regrettable" is McCain going over to Syria and showing off his a**. Not helpful to the cause of peace, nor in America's best interest.

    May 31, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  16. Boo

    McCain is another example as to why we need term limits for the House and Senate.

    May 31, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  17. Shelly

    And just for the record to all you McCain doubters, the man did NOT want the office of president! He absolutely did not. And better aids this country in the position he is in now.

    May 31, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  18. Socrates

    Is this old fart still alive? The guy is a wonderful clown. The Republicans should think seriously on creating a museum where they can exhibit all these dinosaurs, it will be a hit.

    May 31, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  19. Fred Woolman

    Congress is an embarrassment for all US citizens ....
    Their incompetence transcends reality .....

    May 31, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  20. Ted

    All this story proves is that we should stay out of the Syrian civil war. When I say "stay out", I mean that literally. No arms to the rebels and no air support. Only humanitarian support for refugees should be considered.

    May 31, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  21. Texan Girly

    The man needs to retire. Period. The is just getting more and more cenil and I don't like saying things like this about our patriots and war heros. But there is a time to go home, sit down, and shut up. The only fact that he has no clue who he is standing next to is alarming enough. The only people making diplomatic trips on the nation's behalf should be diplomats or the President, period. He is embarrasing us. We don't need another war, and with the international reputation we got after Iraq, who is going to jump in with us? nobody! Anybody who has some knowledge about the region and the true state of affairs knows well that we need to avoid war at all cost. It would escalate to involve multiple countries. It is their problem and they need to learn how to fix it. There are many countries in crisis and we are not able to help all of them!

    May 31, 2013 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  22. spoo

    why did McCain come back? he should have stayed there and save us the pain of seeing him again

    May 31, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  23. paul

    How much stock does McinSane own in the defence industry countries? He needs to either up his meds or sign upfor a lobotomy.

    May 31, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  24. Rudy NYC

    Look on the bright side. I think Sen. McCain's secret traveling days are over. Future requests should be denied.

    May 31, 2013 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  25. Mickey Dick

    How much are these trips costing the american public. He's made at least 6 trips to bagdad and to what gains?

    May 31, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
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