WASHINGTON - Syrian rebels battling the forces of President Bashar Assad must receive ammunition and heavy weapons to counter the regime's tanks and aircraft or it will be impossible for them to prevail, Sen. John McCain said days after he quietly slipped into Syria to meet with the opposition.
"They just can't fight tanks with AK-47s," McCain said Friday in a telephone interview.
The Republican lawmaker and 2008 presidential candidate made an unannounced visit to Syria on Monday, traveling across the border near Kilis, Turkey, and spending about two hours meeting with rebel leaders. McCain has been one of the most vocal lawmakers demanding aggressive U.S. military action in the 2-year-old Syrian civil war, calling for establishment of a no-fly zone and arming the rebels.
The Obama administration has been reluctant to provide weapons to the disparate opposition, fearing that they will fall into the wrong hands in a volatile region. McCain said he discussed what types of weapons the rebels need and whether they could ensure their control.
"I'm confident that they could get the weapons into the right hands and there's no doubt that they need some kind of capability to reverse the battlefield situation, which right now is in favor of Assad," McCain said.
McCain, a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, was the first U.S. senator to travel to Syria since the civil war began more than two years ago. He said he worked with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns in arranging the trip.
McCain said he spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry "a couple of times. It wasn't that I was hiding it from him; it just didn't seem to come up. I thought Burns was the right guy to go through. They were very important in the trip. We couldn't have done it without their cooperation."
Gen. Salim Idris, chief of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, accompanied McCain as they met with 19 battalion commanders.
Citing the photo of McCain's meeting, a Lebanese newspaper has reported that McCain unwittingly crossed paths with two men connected to a rebel group responsible for the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in 2012. McCain said one of the men he reportedly met with is dead and no one in his meeting was identified as the other.
"The people I met with and talked to directly were well-vetted. Their names and their duties were outlined to me. They came from all over Syria," he said.