(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.