In secret trip to Syria, Sen. John McCain hears rebels’ pleas for help

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New chemical weapons claim

Use of chemical weapons by either side is a key issue, and a report from the French newspaper Le Monde said its reporting team found firsthand evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.

Living undercover in and around Damascus for two months with Syrian rebels, a Le Monde reporter and photographer said they witnessed battlefield chemical attacks and talked with doctors and other witnesses about the aftermath.

They described men coughing violently and their eyes burning. “Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme; they begin to vomit or lose consciousness. The fighters [who are] worst affected need to be evacuated before they suffocate,” according to the Le Monde account.

The newspaper said one of its photographers suffered blurred vision and respiratory difficulties for four days after an attack April 13 on the Jobar front, just inside central Damascus.

Mr. Assad’s government and the rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons. As recently as May 6, the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry said it had not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. It is scheduled to issue a report to the Human Rights Council on June 3.

Mr. Obama has said on repeated occasions that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was “a red line” that would “change my calculus” in his response to the crisis. However, the administration’s response was muted when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in April that he had evidence that a small amount of sarin gas had been used in Syria. Mr. Obama said later that the U.S. would “look at all options.”

According to The Daily Beast, which interviewed members of the Syrian Emergency Task Force about Mr. McCain’s visit, the 76-year-old heard about chemical weapons use during his meetings with rebel leaders, including Gen. Salem Idris, leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.

Mr. McCain’s visit was “very important and very useful, especially at this time,” Gen. Idris told the publication. “We need American help to have change on the ground; we are now in a very critical situation.”

The rebel troops are running low on ammunition and don’t have weapons capable of countering the Assad government’s fighter planes, rebel leaders told Mr. McCain.

“What we want from the U.S. government is to take the decision to support the Syrian revolution with weapons and ammunition, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft weapons,” Gen. Idris said. “Of course, we want a no-fly zone and we ask for strategic strikes against Hezbollah, both inside Lebanon and inside Syria.”

Asked about the upcoming peace conference with Syrian officials, Gen. Idris said he is seeking the resignation and departure of Mr. Assad and “justice” for the military officials.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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