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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.