John McCain: Secret diplomat?
The Republican senator from Arizona spent Memorial Day inside of Syria–sneaking in from Turkey–where he met with rebel leaders battling Syrian President Bashar Assad. The White House has acknowledged it was aware of McCain’s trip and that officials “look forward to hearing from him, a follow-up as to the developments he saw.”
McCain is a proponent for greater U.S. involvement in Syria, where two years of civil war have killed more than 70,000 people. The Republican—who became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country since the bloodshed began–has called on the Obama administration to arm the rebels and set up a no-fly zone.
Both options present major risks, with the White House taking a more cautious approach, demanding Assad step down and providing non-lethal aid. McCain’s trip has raised speculation that McCain will push the White House for more involvement in the country. But the White House may have supported McCain’s trip as an unofficial method of making contact with the rebels.
McCain first crossed the Turkey-Syria border with Gen. Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, on Monday and stayed in the country with rebel leaders for several hours. According to the Daily Beast, which first reported on the secret trip, the rebels told McCain that chemical weapons were used against them on several occasions and that they were running out of ammunition.
“Important visit with brave fighters in #Syria who are risking their lives for freedom and need our help,” McCain tweeted on Tuesday. According to NBC News, McCain is still in the Middle East and plans to return to the U.S. later this week.
The trip was apparently so top-secret that even McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, found out about it only after her father was out of Syria. “Nothing quite like finding out via twitter that my father secretly snuck into Syria and met with rebel leaders,” she tweeted on Tuesday.
Richard Engel, NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent, told Hardball’s Chris Matthews that McCain’s goal was to “put pressure on the White House and he wants to give moral support to the rebels themselves,” adding there’s a danger of setting up ”false expectations.”
“The problem is, [McCain is] not the president and he doesn’t have the ability to deliver on this,” said Engel.
Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson Center added that the rebels are divided on many issues, including how to achieve peace and what a new government framework would look like. That could pose a problem in trying to hammer out a solution.
“The rebels actually reflect many different trends in the country,” she said.