US Senator John McCain crosses into Syria for talks with rebel leader

 

US Senator John McCain crossed the border into Syria for talks with rebel commanders, becoming the highest-level American official to enter the country since the civil war began more than two years ago.

Senator McCain, a former presidential candidate and fierce critic of the Obama administration's policy on Syria, crossed into the rebel-held north from Turkey to meet with opposition leaders, his office confirmed.

He was accompanied by General Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army - a coalition of rebel groups fighting to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

US Ambassador Robert Ford is the only other high-ranking US official to have entered Syria since the conflict began.

During his meetings, General Idris and other rebel leaders asked Senator McCain and the US for greater support in their fight against Assad, according to American news website The Daily Beast, which interviewed the rebel leader following the trip.

Specifically, General Idris called for a no-fly zone and airstrikes against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has sent its fighters across the border to support government forces.

“The visit of Senator McCain to Syria is very important and very useful especially at this time,” General Idris told The Daily Beast. “We need American help to have change on the ground; we are now in a very critical situation.”

Syrian government forces recently began a major offensive to retake the town of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon. The town is a key smuggling route for rebel forces bringing weapons in from Lebanon, and has also served as a base for rebel attacks on the main highway linking Damascus to Assad's coastal stronghold of Latakia.

The Syrian army has been supported in Qusayr by hundreds of fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah - a Shia organisation that receives support from Syria and Iran. The group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, promised last week to fight “to the end.” The involvement of such a high number of Hezbollah fighters in the battle has threatened to drag Lebanon into Syria's civil war, in which more than 80,000 people have been killed. It has also drawn retaliatory attacks from Sunni groups in Lebanon, who largely support the Syrian rebels. On Sunday, two rockets fell in the Hezbollah stronghold of south Beirut.

General Idris called on the US to provide more support to the rebels, and to take action against Hezbollah.

“What we want from the US government is to take the decision to support the Syrian revolution with weapons and ammunition, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft weapons,” General Idris said. “Of course we want a no-fly zone and we ask for strategic strikes against Hezbollah both inside Lebanon and inside Syria.”

The Obama administration has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in non-lethal aid for the rebels, but has been reluctant to provide weapons due to fears that they could fall into the hands of extremist groups in the country.

McCain, who sits on the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has repeatedly called for the US government to arm “moderate” Syrian rebels, a large number of which are commanded by General Idris.  Last week, his committee voted to approve a bill that authorises sending military support to the rebels.

Earlier this month, McCain called for “game-changing action” from the US government.

“No American boots on the ground, establish a safe zone, and protect it and supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in,” he said.

McCain's trip was coordinated with the help of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American non-profit organization that works with the Syrian opposition.

His visit comes at a pivotal time in the Syrian conflict. World powers are pushing both sides to take part in peace talks in Geneva next month. The Syrian government has agreed to attend, while the rebels have not yet confirmed that they will go.

In recent weeks, Assad's forces have made advances on the ground. While the government has continued to receive support from its allies in Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the rebels have yet to receive the type of weaponry that can challenge the Assad's grip on power.

Commenting on proposed peace talks with the Syrian government, slated to talk place in Geneva next month, General Idris said: “We are with Geneva if it means that [Syrian President] Bashar [al Assad] will resign and leave the country and the military officials of the regime will be brought to justice.”

General Idris defected from the Syrian army mid-way through 2012. He commands around 50,000 fighters, according to rebel sources, and heads the Western-backed Supreme Military Council - formed in December in an attempt to exert greater control over the disparate groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad. That reorganisation was seen as a requirement for greater Western support.

It is unclear how much control General Idris has over other rebel groups in Syria. Despite sharing a common enemy, Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra operate under a separate leadership, and have different aims.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
(L-R) Amanda Peet as Tina Morris, Melanie Lynskey as Michelle Pierson, Abby Ryder Fortson as Sophie Pierson, Mark Duplass as Brett Pierson and Steve Zissis as Alex Pappas in Togetherness
TV First US networks like HBO shook up drama - now it's comedy's turn
News
i100
Travel
Pool with a view: the mMarina Bay Sands in Singapore
travel From Haiti and Alaska to Namibia and Iceland
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect