- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2013

As international discussions on Syria’s civil war loom, Sen. John McCain, an open critic of the Obama administration’s approach to the civil war, on Monday became the highest-ranking U.S. official to slip into Syria and meet with the forces seeking to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In a surprise visit, the Arizona Republican and former presidential candidate entered war-torn Syria through Turkey and participated in a meeting with leaders of the Free Syrian Army.

The Obama administration’s caution in the face of the Syrian crisis was challenged on two other fronts Monday, with an account by a French newspaper of chemical weapons use in Syria and the announcement late in the day that the European Union had agreed to lift its arms embargo for the Syrian rebels while maintaining the ban on arms sales to the Assad regime.

SEE ALSO: EU opens door for member states to arm Syrians, lifts arms embargo

British Foreign Minister William Hague told reporters in Brussels that London has no “immediate plans” to send arms to the rebels, but the bloc’s vote “gives us flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate.”

The rebel leaders who met with Mr. McCain asked for help in the establishment of a no-fly zone, delivery of anti-aircraft weapons and U.S. airstrikes on military targets associated with the government of Mr. Assad and on Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim movement based in neighboring Lebanon. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said his militias are committed to helping Mr. Assad defeat the rebels, many of whom are members of Sunni Muslims factions.

A spokesman for Mr. McCain confirmed that the senator made the trip, which was first reported on the news website The Daily Beast, but provided no further details.

Mr. McCain has been a leading proponent on Capitol Hill of arming the rebels and has criticized President Obama for failing to do so despite the urging of his own advisers. On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to provide weapons to rebels in Syria, as well as military training to vetted rebel groups and sanctions against anyone who sells oil or transfers arms to the Assad regime. Mr. McCain is the ranking Republican on the committee.

Stepped-up diplomacy

International diplomatic efforts are heating up once again to find a resolution of the Syrian crisis, which has cost an estimated 70,000 lives, sent more than 1.5 million Syrians into refugee camps and threatened to draw neighboring powers into the fighting.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is meeting for three weeks in Geneva, is scheduled to hold a detailed discussion about reported abuses in Syria.

Separately, efforts are underway to bring representatives of the Assad government and rebel forces together for U.N.-hosted peace talks in June, also in Geneva.

On Monday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry flew to Paris to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about the peace conference. Russia, a longtime ally of Damascus, has pledged to bring members of the Assad regime to the table. The Syrian government said Sunday that it agreed “in principle” to send a delegation to Geneva. The goal of the June conference is to create a framework for an interim government and arrange a cease-fire.

Mr. Kerry recently attended a conference on Syria in Turkey that was attended by officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

Officials in Iran, Mr. Assad’s strongest ally in the region, will host a similar conference on Syria in Tehran on Wednesday, the foreign ministry announced Saturday.

“Representatives of Russia and China will be present in the meeting, and Tehran has invited different states, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which hold different positions [from that of Iran on Syria] to attend the conference,” said Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iranian deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, as quoted by FARS news agency.

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