[2/28/17] Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) made a trip to northern Syria to visit U.S. military forces and Kurdish fighters and to discuss the campaign for defeating the Islamic State (ISIS), his office said on February 22.
The news of McCain’s trip to Syria was broken by the Wall Street Journal in a February 22 report that cited unnamed officials.
Another report from CNN the next day quoted Julie Tarallo, a spokeswoman for McCain, who said he made the official but unannounced visit to northern Syria as the military’s campaign to take ISIS’ de facto capital in Raqqa unfolds.
“Senator McCain traveled to northern Syria last week to visit U.S. forces deployed there and to discuss the counter-ISIL campaign and ongoing operations to retake Raqqa,” Tarallo said, using the term for ISIS that began with the Obama administration.
McCain’s office said his visit to Syria was an opportunity “to assess dynamic conditions on the ground” there and also praised President Trump for requesting a review of the U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS.
Raqqa was captured by ISIS in 2013 and the terrorist organization went on to make the city its headquarters in Syria in 2014.
CNN noted that McCain — who has a long history as an interventionist on U.S. foreign policy — has argued for more aggressive military involvement in the Syrian civil war.
This was McCain’s first visit to Syria since 2013. A CNN report back on May 27th, 2013 cited a statement from McCain’s communications director that he had visited with anti-Assad “rebels” in Syria. The report noted that While in Syria, McCain met with General Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.
The support that McCain gave to the Free Syrian Army by means of his visit was problematic, however. A report from Breitbart on July 8, 2014 noted that several factions within the “moderate” rebel army may not have been so moderate after all. It observed:
Reports coming out of eastern Syria Monday revealed that several factions within the Syrian opposition force known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have pledged services to the Islamic State, the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Sources and eyewitnesses said that the FSA has handed over its weapons to the Islamic State in large numbers.
The Free Syrian Army was said to be a “moderate” and “secular” force, which was used as the rationale by U.S. officials to supply the opposition force with weapons and training.
Sources told Homs, Syria-based Zaman Alwasl newspaper that several factions within the FSA, including Ahl Al Athar, Ibin al-Qa’im, and Aisha have pledged to support the Islamic State.
The report noted that the Obama administration had delivered weapons, supplies, and CIA-sponsored training to the Free Syrian Army.
The New American posted an article on May 25, 2013 that summarized the objections expressed by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss sending arms to the Syrian rebels. Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) had co-sponsored a bill that authorized “critical support to the Syrian opposition through provision of military assistance, training, and additional humanitarian support.”
Paul had offered two amendments to the bill — one that would have forbidden the transfer of weapons to the rebel forces fighting to oust the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and another that would have prevented the use of U.S. military armed forces in Syria. But both of Paul’s amendments were rejected and the bill sailed through the committee, passing with bipartisan support by a vote of 15-3.
Paul said afterwards that it is “a mistake to arm” vetted Syrian rebels to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“It’s a mistake to arm them. Most of the arms we’ve given to the so-called moderate rebels have wound up in the hands of ISIS, because ISIS simply takes it from them, or it’s given to them, or we mistakenly actually give it to some of the radicals,” Paul said on CBS’s This Morning.
In 2013 McCain applauded the Obama administration for providing weapons to the Syrian rebels attempting to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but said that provided arms was not enough.
An ABC News report in June 2013 reported:
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who has been vocal on the need for more U.S. action against the Assad regime, praised the finding by the government [regarding the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime] and pressed Obama to offer “lethal assistance” to rebel forces.
“But providing arms alone is not sufficient,” said McCain in a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) “That alone is not enough to change the military balance of power on the ground against Assad. The president must rally an international coalition to take military actions to degrade Assad’s ability to use air power and ballistic missiles and to move and resupply his forces around the battlefield by air. This can be done, as we have said many times, using stand-off weapons such as cruise missiles.”