May 30th, 2013
01:45 PM ET
8 years 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, 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. Rudy NYC

    Shelly wrote on page 3:

    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.
    For the record, all of the above is pure, unadulterated nonsense. McCain saw the handwriting on the Senate wall. He's served on so many committees that Senate rules say that he can no longer be the lead member. McCain is a junior member of any committee on which he currently sits. He can, however, be the lead on a new committee, or a special investigative committee.

    Otherwise, McCain is obsolete, in the Senate. He knew this back in 2008, which is EXACTLY WHY he ran for POTUS. This is exactly why McCain raised a fuss back in January because Harry Reid would not create any new committees. It put McCain in a permanent back seat, obsolete. So, McCain does other stuff to make him feel good about himself, like he's doing important work. The truth of the matter is that Senate rules have rendered him impotent.

    May 31, 2013 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  2. Jeff--Tacoma

    Mr McCain, if you can't figure out who you're taking pictures with, how do you propose to figure out who to give weapons too? Will it also be "regrettable" when they use a surface to air missle that we gave them to knock an Israeli aircraft out of the sky?

    Mr McCain thank you for your service to this country, now please shut up and go home.

    May 31, 2013 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
  3. Youkaia hernandez

    I though we do not deal with terrorists???????????????????????????????????

    May 31, 2013 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  4. kermit humphrey

    president roosevelt use to meet with stalin.president nixon met with many communist leaders.all leaders meet with characters that they dont neccesaily like, but it goes with the territory.senator john mccain is working to see whether the united states needs to be supplying weapons to the bad guys.what is wrong with that? this writer does not agree with john mccain on some issues, but he the best of the best to go to syria for the president or without the presidents blessing, because he will bring substantive information back to the president that can be used to make foriegn policy

    May 31, 2013 05:34 pm at 5:34 pm |
  5. Hecam

    I'm in favor of letting the Senator fly close air support missions in Syria, last time the didn't work out so well for him.
    He had a chance to set policy in '00 but couldn't beat W, then again in '08 with same result vs Obama. Time to retire to AZ and work on the golf game.

    May 31, 2013 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  6. jay

    Stupid is as stupid does...and McCain always does stupid WELL!

    May 31, 2013 06:00 pm at 6:00 pm |
  7. Marsha Fly

    I hope he soon realizes, as others do ~ he's a regular on the Sunday talk shows because no one in Washington cares what he says.... nor do most Americans. He seems so in need of attention he'll do anything, including a trip to Syria. For what purpose? Who in government cares what information he came back with. Obviously another attempt to make himself feel important. Your photo op didn't work out so well.... Mr. McCain, it's time to retire before you embarrass yourself further.

    May 31, 2013 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  8. Dave

    McCain has been in the pit too long!? Effected his brain cells!?

    May 31, 2013 06:11 pm at 6:11 pm |
  9. David

    Way to go John, way to go. thanks for not looking like a fool.

    May 31, 2013 06:15 pm at 6:15 pm |
  10. Patrick

    McCain, why do you hate America so much that you want to arm terrorists?.Time for that crazy old man to retire. There is something really wrong with this picture when Rand Paul is on the right side of an issue.

    May 31, 2013 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  11. Lee Oates

    McCain's concept of the right guys to back are those in Syria that will do as they told by the US if they win. He is laying the grounds for another hand-picked dictator. Everyone should stay out of Syria's civil war and allow Syrians to decide, including Israel. Israel's bombing only strengthens Assad's rule.

    May 31, 2013 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  12. Jo Black

    Can't ever forgive McCain for choosing Palin as a running mate. Old guy President with a history of melanoma would mean a good chance Pailn would be Presodent. Palin is one of the dumbest people I have ever seen. Did not know who Paul Revere was.

    May 31, 2013 06:35 pm at 6:35 pm |
  13. CNH

    did mccain just allude to the fact that the fall of bashar assad is sought because it would serve as a blow to the iranian regime? i thought he was looking to advance democracy for the betterment of the syrian people!!!

    May 31, 2013 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  14. old professor

    Senator McCain suffers from an impulsive nature. It caused trouble for him in the military, in his marriages, and in his campaign for president. He can't help is just his nature.

    May 31, 2013 06:51 pm at 6:51 pm |
  15. BLE7481

    It would be pretty hard to stand next to any guy in Syria between the ages of 13-79 who hasn't committed atrocity or other.

    May 31, 2013 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  16. SallyinChicago

    This is typical McCain....there's not a photo op with a foreigner he won't miss. And he doesn't know who the people that he's with. Just like Libya.

    May 31, 2013 07:25 pm at 7:25 pm |
  17. Anonymous

    McCain is an embarrassment to the USA, especially our troops.

    May 31, 2013 08:16 pm at 8:16 pm |
  18. Paul

    McCain is an embarrassment to the USA, especially our troops. Stay in Syria McCain , and make sure you paint a bright X on your chest!

    May 31, 2013 08:18 pm at 8:18 pm |
  19. Jake

    Since when was it the job of Senators to go over seas and peddle weapons to terrorists? We've created enough oppressive regimes already, and support more, and need to stop. McCain should be impeached.

    May 31, 2013 10:09 pm at 10:09 pm |
  20. Get real

    Senator McCain should reprimanded by the U.S. Senate for bringing that body into disrepute. Can you imagine the incendiary reaction if a Democrat had done this, especially one of color? I do not understand why the Democrats do not jump all over this. Why are the Democrats in the Senate always lurking around unwilling to exercise their majority control?

    June 1, 2013 12:38 am at 12:38 am |
  21. JJones

    Are we supporting the Islamic terrorist/rebel/freedom fighters this time or are we supporting the Islamic terrorist/dictator/puppet? I can't keep track any more.

    June 1, 2013 03:57 am at 3:57 am |
  22. kintelslave

    What a traitor, this is 'Hanoi Jane' all over again.

    June 1, 2013 05:27 am at 5:27 am |
  23. Dumbpolitics

    Who paid for the trip? Was it the tax payers or the weapon makers?
    What you don't see in the picture is the protection Mr. McCain had. Who paid for that, the taxpayers or the weapon makers?

    June 1, 2013 07:14 am at 7:14 am |
  24. Bc

    Actually the senate push for Syria war is being lead by bob menendez democrat nj. He is head of the senate foreign relations committee and author of a bill authorizing more war. Now it appears Obama will agree and go to war.

    Only three sens opposed mil action, one was rand Paul paul republican.

    You see, this is a bipartisan warmongering effort. I'm no longer buying the dirty hawk repubs or peace loving demos lines. Tat is just tired old cliches being repeated ad nauseum by political party hacks on comment pages. Sooner or later so will everyone else

    June 1, 2013 08:55 am at 8:55 am |
  25. JOSH

    What's up with this guy? Same old story: " we need to help Libya, their fighters are not terrorist, they are not affiliated with Al Qaeda, there will be more stability in the region, Libya deserves to be free". Look the situation in that country right now, no government, weapons scattered all over the Middle East, Libyans fighting with Al Qaeda against the government in Syria and he still wants to push the US into another war. Time to go warmonger.

    June 1, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
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