WASHINGTON (AP) — Leaders of Syria's opposition forces got a chance to make their case for increased U.S. support directly with Sen. John McCain when he slipped into that country for a surprise visit.
"We are peaceful people, we would like to see our country liberated from this dictatorship, liberated from this murder regime, and we would like to have the best relations with all the countries in the world," Gen. Salim Idris, chief of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Idris accompanied McCain on Monday as the senator made an unannounced trip to Syria, the first U.S. senator to travel to the country since the civil war began more than two years ago. McCain has been a forceful proponent of military action against the forces of President Bashar Assad and a critic of President Barack Obama's handling of the situation.
McCain spent about two hours in Syria, crossing over the border from Turkey, and met with about 10-15 rebel commanders, Idris said in a telephone interview from inside Syria. His discussions focused on the fighting on the ground, the need for military assistance, humanitarian aid and medical care.
"The security of Mr. McCain was very important to us. We did not go very far from the border, to keep him secure," Idris said.
McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, favors providing arms to rebel forces in Syria and creation of a no-fly zone. He has stopped short of backing U.S. ground troops in Syria.
Spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the White House was aware in advance of McCain's plans to travel to Syria. Carney declined to say whether McCain was carrying any message from the administration, but he said White House officials looked forward to hearing about his trip.
A State Department official said the department was aware of McCain crossing into Syrian territory Monday, but referred further questions to McCain's office. McCain spokeswoman Rachael Dean confirmed the Monday trip, but declined further comment.
The visit took place at the same time as meetings in Paris involving efforts to secure participation of Syria's fractured opposition in an international peace conference in Geneva.
And in Brussels, the European Union decided late Monday to lift the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition while maintaining all other sanctions against President Bashar Assad's regime after June 1, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
Two years of violence in Syria have killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations. President Barack Obama has demanded that Assad leave power, while Russia has stood by Syria, its closest ally in the Arab world.
Last week, the 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.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Paris, Julie Pace in Washington and Karin Laub in Beirut contributed to this report.