The Obama administration said on Tuesday it knew in advance of a trip to Syria by John McCain, a visit that raised questions over whether the Republican senator met with the kidnappers of a group of Lebanese pilgrims held hostage for the past year.
US officials had little to say about the trip by McCain, an outspoken advocate for US military aid to the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
McCain’s office said his visit was organized by the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a non-profit group that backs the Syrian opposition and is based in the United States. The Republican senator crossed into northern Syria from the country’s border with Turkey on Monday and stayed there several hours in a surprise visit.
McCain saw General Salim Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army coalition of rebel groups, as well as 18 commanders of Free Syrian Army battalions from all of Syria, the SETF website said.
“While meeting with Senator McCain, General Idris and FSA commanders asked that the United States increase its aid to the Free Syrian Army in the form of heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and air strikes on Hezbollah,” the SETF website said, referring to the Lebanese resistance group backing Assad.
However, a report aired on Lebanese al-Jadeed television identified two of the rebels who met with McCain.
The report by Nawal Berri said that two men seen in pictures with McCain were Abou Youssef and Mohammed Nour, whom she had met last year when al-Jadeed visited the 11 Lebanese hostages last year. The two men had been in charge of escorting the television crew last summer.
A group of Lebanese pilgrims were kidnapped in May 2012, and pushes for the release of the remaining 11 have so far been unsuccessful.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly shied away from US involvement in the conflict, which has claimed 80,000 lives according to United Nations estimates, although he has kept all options on the table. The Obama administration has sent food and medical supplies to Assad’s opponents.
“We were aware, of course, that Senator McCain was going to make this trip,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “And we look forward to speaking with Senator McCain upon his return to learn more about the trip.”
At the State Department, spokesman Patrick Ventrell noted that members of Congress often travel abroad and make their policy positions known. “I don’t have a particular reaction to the trip one way or another,” Ventrell said.
McCain’s trip came as a Reuters/Ipsos online poll on Tuesday found only 12 percent of Americans said they were in favor of US intervention in Syria as opposed to 58 percent who are against it.
Obama has resisted pressure to deepen US involvement in Syria, wary of getting the United States embroiled in another war just as American troops are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have been trying to organize an international peace conference on Syria. But Russia said on Tuesday that the European Union’s failure to renew an arms embargo on Syria would undermine the chances for peace talks.
McCain made a similar visit to Libya early in that country’s conflict, traveling to rebel-held Benghazi in April 2011 after Western powers had begun their intervention in the uprising against then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.