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.