May 30th, 2013
01:45 PM ET
11 months 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. My10Cents

    Those guys must some of "good" rebels McCain wants to send heavy weapons. Nice to know all they have to do to separate the "bad" rebels from the "good" rebels is get them all to pose for a photo-op with McCain.

    May 31, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  2. Maurice

    First off this is an incredible end-run around the state department and the president. The gall of this man to do such a thing. He is disrespectful at the very least and STUPID to behave so recklessly! With that photo op of the kidnappers photographer in the background of the picture that's being circulated, it just goes to show everyone that you can't know who is who in Syria! Those Syrians are laughing at him, thinking how easy it is to dupe this old guy! It's time for this dude to hang up his boots. He is a "has been" and is no longer relevent.
    Just a bag of wind!

    May 31, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  3. sly

    McCain is a senile old war criminal rightfully imprisoned for killing innocent women and children with chemical weapons.

    Like most Republicans, he is not interested in protecting American lives – only interested in obstructing what the GOP consider the enemy: The Black/White Man who is President.

    May 31, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  4. C TN

    Senator McCain shouldn't we concentrate more on what's going on in the United States than whats happening in Syria. I feel for the people of this war torn nation but using our already strained resources when we are in debt up to our necks is not the best plan. We should mind our own businesses until we are in a place financially to help other countries.

    May 31, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  5. Kingdom of Heaven

    Epitafio...Luis Delgado...you only push what is to come to pass sooner...when the UN hears what you tried to kill in the USA have fun explaining why you committed domestic-terrorism against Assad's sister held up in Alaska...oh cats out of the bag
    And guess what john boy the war monger field representative....Russia's Putin is presenting the evidence in UN courts...
    I guess that International Law degree Putin has comes in handy right about now doesn't it john boy?

    May 31, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  6. Rosslaw

    Well gee, they LOOKED like nice guys. I'm sure a top middle eastern expert like McCain can tell if they weren't. Now, how is that surge working?

    May 31, 2013 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  7. MOD

    McCain has unwittingly expanded this conflict by his visit since both sides of this conflict now think the U.S. will become fully involved. Shortly after his visit with Sunni rebels Hezbollah (read Shi-ite) fighters started flooding into Syria in support of Assad. In addition, the Russians are likely to send Assad anti-aircraft weapons to protect against a hypothetical NATO-enforced no-fly zone. So, thanks McCain. This is what happens when we chose sides in the Middle East.

    May 31, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  8. BK

    I love how he downplays this, yet if the same happened to a democrat politician, McCain wouldn't take "He didn't know" for a valid answer. We don't need politicians who 'accidentally' associate with such people.
    McCain has been a decent politician in the past, but it's time for him to admit that he is no longer physically or mentally able to perform his duties.

    May 31, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  9. judith

    Interesting to see Old McCain "paling around with terrorists"–the very thing his little harpy running mate accused the President of. With McCain, we have photographic evidence.

    May 31, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  10. Anonymous

    OK, so McCain didn't know the people he was meeting with in Syria. But, we are supposed to believe him when he says they are OK to arm? McCain is a hammer and everything he sees are nails!

    May 31, 2013 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  11. Really?

    Did your party of lunatics tell you hanging out with Muslims is wrong John?!

    May 31, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  12. damn John

    didn't an American Female Extremist just stream in too? You left that out John.

    May 31, 2013 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  13. dman

    That's why, Senator McCain, the USA should stay completely out of these types of conflicts. You can't trust either side. The only reason a Congressman or a Senator would recommend arming one of the sides is if they could benefit arms manufacturers from their state.

    May 31, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  14. Ol' Yeller

    McCain is arguing for larger weaponry for these rebels. Will it be 'regrettable' if one of these larger weapons ends up being used to shoot down an Israelli passenger airline flight with American tourists onboard?

    May 31, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  15. no

    Tired of our government training and funding the enemy. Anyone with half a brain knows these Rebels are Al-Qaeda.
    The same A-Qaeda, trained and funded by the CIA to fight the Soviets in the 80s..... The Same Al-Qaeda that attacked US.
    Heads should roll at the CIA.

    May 31, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  16. Richard Broderick, Jr.

    Hey Senator McCain, have you ever seen a war that you didn't want the US in?

    May 31, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  17. Richard Broderick, Jr.

    No US in Syria. We need to fix the bridges here before we knock more of them down over there.

    May 31, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  18. Vad

    Hey McCain, RETIRE ALREADY!!! You made me regret voting for you as President. I am glad you lost. Your campaign to get arms for Muslim Fighters in Syria is every bit the joke your Presidential Campaign was. Whatever respect and credibility you earned from me for your military service is long gone. Go away!!!!

    May 31, 2013 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  19. Al

    Yea, Obama was never with known people that want to impose damage on the United States, and all the people that hid behind the cloth never spot ill of the United States while Obama was in church. But this is somehow front page news.

    May 31, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  20. Fittinguy

    Wouldn't most countries call groups attempting to over through the government, terrorists? So when we want a group to win in their struggle, they are rebels, when we do not want a group to succeed, they are terrorists. How convenient!

    May 31, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  21. jef

    Obviously the Viagra is no longer working for Mr. McCain. The only way he can get aroused is by demanding we attack every other country on the planet.
    What a sad, pathetic, cantankerous old geezer he has become. Hard to believe I voted for him a couple times.

    May 31, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  22. Norm

    How would he know?
    These guys change their names on a daily basis and they all look alike.

    May 31, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  23. Hamburger Jones

    Senator Magoo pulled an Ollie North. I'm sure he thinks he met the Good Guys, same as Ollie thought. He's ready to get behind them all the way, like Ollie did with the Good Iranians, and give them all the American tax money they want. Retire, old man! We can't afford the messes you leave behind when you stand up.

    May 31, 2013 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  24. Ol' Yeller

    @Al "Yea, Obama was never with known people that want to impose damage on the United States, and all the people that hid behind the cloth never spot ill of the United States while Obama was in church. But this is somehow front page news"
    I'm sure you chanted right along with Sarah about hoe Obama 'palled around with terrorists' and there wasn't photo evidence of that. I agree though... the only front page news is 'Impeach Obama over (fill in blank)'
    Right?

    May 31, 2013 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  25. Mike

    My Grand Daughter told me she still belived in Santa Clause thid year because she wanted " the popular toys and not a lot of STUPID CLOTHES since she alread has plenty. The latest gadgets are more fun than clothes." I"m not sure, but I think she she has the Senetor pegged.

    May 31, 2013 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
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