McCain Slips Across Border to Meet With Rebels in Syria
This was my first question as well after hearing this story about McCain meeting with Syrian rebel military leaders -- who approved his trip and did the White House know about it? And who provided him with the security? It seems the only thing we have a clear answer to right now is why he wasn't around to make his gazillionth appearance on the Sunday shows this weekend.
Sen. John McCain visited rebels in Syria on Monday, his communications director confirmed to CNN, making the Arizona Republican the highest ranking elected official from the United States to visit the war-torn country.
Brian Rogers confirmed a report that originally appeared on The Daily Beast, which indicated McCain entered Syria through Turkey, and remained in the country for several hours.
While in Syria, McCain met with Gen. Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, according to Mouaz Moustafa with the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force that was involved in planning the trip. He spent about an hour meeting with Free Syrian Amry commanders from various parts of the country including Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib. [...]
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 Syrian President Bashar al Assad. They also called for establishing no-fly zones and for airstrikes against Assad's regime, according to the Daily Beast's report.
His visit came shortly before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to meet in Paris regarding Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. For months during the Syrian war, Russia appeared to be supporting the country's president, Bashar al-Assad. But that tide seems to be turning, at least gaining some wiggle room for the Russians to help broker an end to the violence.
Moustafa of the Syrian Emergency Task Force called McCain's visit "an incredibly important trip and trips like this need to happen more frequently. Read on...
UPDATE: The White House was asked about McCain's trip on Tuesday and apparently they were informed that he was going: White House: 'No pressure' to alter Syria policy after McCain meets with rebels:
The White House denied Tuesday that a visit to Syria by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over the weekend puts any more pressure on the Obama administration to take a more forceful role in the 26-month civil war. [...]
“I don't believe that his trip puts more pressure on us,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri told MSNBC. “All of the options … are what the administration is considering in terms of how we deal with Syria."
Palmieri said the White House and the State Department had gotten a head's up from McCain before his trip.
“Secretary [of State] John Kerry was in Russia over the weekend discussing the issue with his counterpart there, hoping to have some talks in Geneva about this,” Palmieri said, in reference to planned talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and the rebels next month under the auspices of the United Nations.
“So we continue to put a lot of thought, a lot of effort into it, and it's a constantly evolving evaluation on our part.”
BLITZER: Meanwhile, other news we're following, including a significant new development in Syria's civil war. Senator John McCain visited Syria today and met with rebel forces. The Arizona Republican is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since the war began more than two years ago.
Joining us now on the phone, one of the people who planned Senator McCain's trip. He's Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. He's joining us.
I believe you're in Turkey, Mr. Moustafa, is that right?
MOUAZ MOUSTAFA, SYRIAN EMERGENCY TASK FORCE: Yes, sir, on the border with Syria.
BLITZER: On the border with Syria. All right, tell us how this came about. You helped plan Senator McCain's trip inside Syria. What happened?
MOUSTAFA: Well, it was actually a very interesting trip. He came. The senator met with a total of about 18 commanders from the Free Syria Army under the supreme commander, General Idris.
He had two meetings (INAUDIBLE) The first meeting included 10 commanders. The second meeting was four, and the third meeting, which was inside Syrian territory, had five commanders, all of which were attended by the General Idris, the supreme commander of the Free Syria Army.
BLITZER: So, how many hours was Senator McCain inside Syria proper?
MOUSTAFA: About an hour.
BLITZER: About one hour. Was there any -- ever any danger to the start?
MOUSTAFA: No, actually, not at all.
And I think it's testament to the Free Syria Army, which with very limited weapons and capabilities has been able to secure and liberate large swathes of area in the north. The senator did not go too far deep in Syria. It was less than one kilometer in. And the meeting, again, took about 45 minutes to an hour.
And then there was -- the Free Syria Army was incredibly cooperative. They didn't even stop the convoy. They let us come back to the door for the room where the meeting took place. And it was incredibly productive.
BLITZER: What was the senator's message to the Free Syrian Army?
MOUSTAFA: The senator, first of all, I think, wanted to assure the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army that the people of the United States in general support their strive for freedom, support their revolution, which for seven and eight -- or eight months was completely peaceful, and they were forced into taking up arms to defend against the Assad regime's massacres that were occurring against innocent people.
He also discussed with them a few major issues. One was his concern about the increasing numbers of Hezbollah fighters that have been entering Syria and taking part in aiding Assad and oppressing its people, also, the Revolutionary Guard from Iran that are also operating and taking part in combat operations inside of Syria.
He also discussed briefly the use of chemical weapons, as well as what were the needs of the Free Syria Army. He also discussed the aspects of extremism that may have sort of popped up in certain parts of Syria and to what extent that was and what ways we could take to be able to marginalize any extremist groups that may have entered due to the lack of international intervention or aid.
BLITZER: What was the main message to Senator McCain from the Free Syrian Army, the rebels who are opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad?
MOUSTAFA: The Free Syrian Army really wanted to -- first of all, were incredibly appreciative.
Some of these commanders came from places as far away as Homs, Qusayr, Aleppo, Idlib, and other provinces all over Syria just to meet the senator. And we were helping coordinate them coming out.
And what they wanted to say is, first of all, thank you very much for taking the time and for coming to see them. One major thing that they realize is that many in the West, in the United States, specifically, are afraid to arm the rebels, because they don't know who they are or they're afraid that the weapons would fall in the wrong hands, and their message was that they are confident that if the weapons are given to General Idris and the Supreme Military Council, that it would not fall in the wrong hands.
They also assured him that even serial numbers for weapons would be written down and personal guarantees that such weapons would be returned once Assad is deposed, but also that if the United States does not act and take greater leadership in supporting the rebels in a more serious manner, that the threats of increased extremism in the country will be realized and that the disintegration of Syrian institutions and the country as we know it and the spillover all the over the region would greatly increase.
So, their main message was that we are desperate for ammunition, we are desperate for weapons through a hierarchy of a Free Syria Army that is willing to be under civilian command, that is merely defending their people and wanting to insure that their greatest fear, more than anybody else, is extremism, and that they want to fight against Hezbollah, Iran, and all these other countries that are intervening.
And, finally, they wanted to mention that the president had mentioned the red line on different issues, including the chemical weapons. And they had provided, they said, to the State Department previously evidence of the use of chemical weapons. And yet when these red lines are placed, it's more of a green light for Bashar Assad to continue to ferociously attack his people. And that was the main message, to go back to the United States, to go back to Congress and ask for true help.
BLITZER: Mouaz Moustafa, hold on for a minute, because there's a developing story that's just coming in and I want to get your quick reaction. Hold on for one second.
All right, this just coming in. The European Union has now agreed, yes, agreed, to lift its embargo on arming the Syrian rebels. Diplomats in The Hague, they say there's no immediate decision by European governments for any delivery of weapons for the rebels. Other sanctions, they say, remain in place.
Mouaz, Mouaz Moustafa, your quick reaction to the E.U. decision?
MOUSTAFA: We really welcome this decision.
This is something that I believe the French and the British and meetings with the French ambassador, Eric Chevallier, and the British ambassador, envoy to Syria, John Wilkes, they have both been adamant about pushing the European Union to lift the arms embargo.
Now, as you say, this is not a decision to arm the Free Syria Army, but it is a very welcome development, just as the visit of Senator McCain is a very welcome development. And we hope that this will result in aiding and ammunition and weapons for the Free Syria Army to be able to defend Assad regime before we -- before it's too late, before we lose the country.
BLITZER: Mouaz Moustafa from the Syrian Emergency Task Force, thanks so much for joining us. We will stay in close touch with you.
MOUSTAFA: Thank you, sir.
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