May 29th, 2013
03:17 PM ET
9 years ago

McCain says State provided security in Syria trip

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, 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?"

Filed under: AC360 • John McCain • Syria
soundoff (125 Responses)
  1. Mike in Northern VA

    Mr. McCain the American people are broke and you want us to borrow money to give to those that will only spit on the American flag no thank you if you want to spend your money knock your self out. I prefer we spend here on bridges that fall down.

    May 29, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  2. Thinkergal

    How about those of us who have lost family members and friends in the U.S. military in these endless Middle East conflicts? McCain is way too much a hawk (bomb, bomb, bomb Iran) and he LOST the presidential election as a result. Things are finally improving in our own economy, and he wants to squander more of our national treasure, not to mention the blood of our soldiers, for a cause in which we have little stake.

    May 29, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  3. Icurheinie

    Yes, they need help. No argument there. Assad can never be allowed to cling to what's left of his power. No argument there either. The questions are "who" and "how". Since "boots on the ground" in Syria is 100% off limits, I see nothing wrong with arming them to the teeth and creating a "no fly" zone, ala Libya. Aerial strikes, too, hell yes. Prime their pumps a bit to help get them over the top. Too many forget that Assad had his troops fire on peaceful protests – for months – until they were virtually forced to defend themselves, when all they wanted was their freedom. The majority of rebel fighters are defectors of the regime, wanting to do the right thing. The American thing. I say help them.

    May 29, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  4. Rudy NYC

    McCain's biggest problem is that he's become obsolete in the Senate. He's been there so long that he's served on every existing committee, and Senate rules prevent him from being senior party member on any of them. Any committee on which he serves, will find McCain in a junior role.

    The only leading roles that Sen. McCain can play in the Senate are new committees, which Sen. Reid has already ruled out probably for this very reason, or specially appointed committees, like investigative committees. Sen. McCain say this day coming, which is probably a prime factor in why he ran for POTUS in 2008. McCain, is obsolete. So, he does these sort of things to make himself important. To look like he's getting stuff done, when in fact he's in no position to get anything done anymore.

    BTW, the Chinese and Russians, especially the Russians, have deep rooted interests in seeing the current Syrian government remain in power. The Russians have provided Syrian with the best air defense in the Middle East outside of Israel for a GOOD reason. The closest thing the Russians have to a warm water, naval port is on the Syrian coast.

    May 29, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  5. just sayin

    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.

    May 29, 2013 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  6. Brian Smith

    Yeah and when you talk to the Syrian Military, you find out they haven't lost a single friend or family member, which is why the USA must get involved to save the helpless defeated rebels.... idiot.

    May 29, 2013 04:30 pm at 4:30 pm |
  7. 2012liberal

    I think ALL congress ppl need 2 keep their buts n the usa. If u arent part of administrations cabinet u dont speak 4 us. Secretary Kerry is doing his job. Quit underminding the policies of obama admin.

    May 29, 2013 04:31 pm at 4:31 pm |
  8. Bob

    Shut up Johnny you war mongering old fool.

    You couldn't fly straight, and now you can't think straight.

    May 29, 2013 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  9. 2012liberal

    Wth. I think ALL congress ppl need 2 keep their buts n the usa. If u arent part of administrations cabinet u dont speak 4 us. Secretary Kerry is doing his job. Quit underminding the policies of obama admin.

    May 29, 2013 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  10. Doc1

    Obama handed Egypt over the the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Libya is in chaos with AQ groups running rampant. And now he is doing his best to hand Syria over to another radical Muslim faction. And then when they all attack Israel, we are committed to help defending them.

    Obama has set the entire Middle East on fire and it will all blow up in his face. This is one reason I am glad he won last November. It will be good to have to see him deal with the mess he has created. This is what happens when you lead from behind.


    I would say there are mental health professionals out there would could help you, but I'd just be lying.

    May 29, 2013 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  11. Dgiz

    We have nothing but nut jobs running this country and they will not be happy until it is run into the ground and under foreign rule and why not we owe China how much money?

    May 29, 2013 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  12. Harvey Tabasky

    Hey Johnny, just like you lobbied for the Iraq War. How'd that turn out? How the hell do YOU know who the right people are? You, a millionaire 40 times over who still sucks out that Navy pension check every month from the taxpayers who are still paying for the WMDs that never existed.

    May 29, 2013 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  13. Charles

    Forget it McCain. This is not our fight. Have you not learned anything?

    May 29, 2013 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  14. Larry

    If McCain wants to go fight he should go – buy him a one-way ticket and furnish him the weapon of his choice (no nuclear allowed). Good luck McCain – be sure to NOT let us know how you are doing.

    May 29, 2013 04:39 pm at 4:39 pm |
  15. Common sense grandma

    How many wars will it take to satisfy those like McCain? The Middle East is a mess and our continued involvement does not appear to be helping. Maybe we could try building our own country - starting with our crumbling infrastructure. Maybe we could try caring for our own.

    May 29, 2013 04:40 pm at 4:40 pm |
  16. Southeast

    An idiot that still don't have nothing to do but won't to go to war. Carry your old ass somewhere and sit down with your pamper wearing ass.

    May 29, 2013 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  17. No Name

    Oh look it's John boy...field representative for the war person to sell arms...some things never change...
    But than again...old dog...some things do...and they will...and there is nothing you can do about it...too bad so sad...

    May 29, 2013 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  18. sonny chapman

    Hey Dr. Sultan, ask the remains of the Iraqi Republican Guard what they think of about the U.S. & it's Coalition Forces who destroyed them in Gulf War I.

    May 29, 2013 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  19. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes

    Assad may be brutal, but I'm just curious on why WE, The United States are ready to have him knocked off when he is someone we propped up. I'm not for supporting rebels who have Al-Queda elements within it or we can't distinguish who they are. Not to mention that the Russian anti aircraft batteries being sent to Syria should be a clear indication that implementing a no fly zone is clearly not in America's or Israel's best interest.

    May 29, 2013 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  20. Junior

    Please tell me Mr. McCain, how do we not repeat the same mistakes when we armed the Afghan rebels, which turned out to be the Taliban we're fighting today?

    May 29, 2013 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  21. MarySmythe

    McCain's deep yellow teeth make it impossible to take him seriously.

    May 29, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  22. Andrew

    Mad old bugger. I think he put two birds down when he was flying for the armed forces.

    May 29, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  23. snowdogg

    "the United States must become further engaged in the bloody conflict."

    This old fool should grab a gun and join the fight... but not ONE of our military personnel should be committed to another useless war.

    May 29, 2013 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  24. Curt29

    The republicans aren't even in power and they are trying to get us into another war!

    May 29, 2013 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  25. Marie MD

    Poor, poor mccain. He's a ghost of himself not a "bada$$" like his daughter called him.
    He sees his political career coming to an end and is trying to grasp anything that goes by in front, behind, on any side of him and it's quite pathetic to tell the truth.
    Listen up congress. We have had enough of lying wars and dead Americans. Let them in the middle east figure it out for themselves. They will NEVER come to term with "democracy" because we don't even have it!

    May 29, 2013 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
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