The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin reports that Senator John McCain ventured into Syria recently to visit with rebel fighters, taking a detour from his official trip to Turkey (where he also met with anti-Assad rebels). McCain was accompanied on his tour by General Salim Idriss, a defector from Assad’s army who has won fans in the West by rejecting the most extreme and jihadist elements of the opposition, including the Nusrah Front, which is essentially a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and otherwise appearing like a man McCain and others can do business with.
The (East) German-educated soldier and engineer, unfortunately, appears to have very little influence or credibility among the rebels — McCain, presumably, would like to try to change that with an influx of American aid for the good general.
Senator McCain, one of the cheerleaders of the U.S./NATO intervention in Libya (where he also met with rebels) has been calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria for a long time now, and he’s a strident supporter of shipping arms to the opposition. The European Union could be on the verge of making that leap — ahead of a meeting of the union’s foreign ministers this week, Britain and France announced that they would support lifting the current embargo on weapons transfers to Syria.
The EU just recently announced that they would be lifting sanctions on Syrian oil exports because the rebels now control most of the supplies, and they’d like to indirectly aid them — unfortunately, since the Nusrah Front controls much of the oil supplies (the Assad regime actually has actually sent the group millions of dollars to keep its own oil supplies flowing), this puts the EU in the clear position of subsidizing a branch of al-Qaeda. That’s actually nothing new, given France and other nations’ penchant for paying the ransoms that fund al-Qaeda in North and West Africa, but such inadvertent support for terrorists and enemies of the West will be less of an obvious concern, but no less an important one, if the U.S. does decide to begin sending arms to the rebels themselves (less obvious since, in theory, a group such as the Nusra Front will not be receiving U.S. weapons).
For now, the U.S. is facilitating the flow of arms from Gulf nations, especially Qatar, to the rebel groups, attempting to keep the weapons out of undesirables’ hands. How well that’s working is anyone’s guess for now, but it’s clear that those undesirables, whom Idriss has been picked to sideline and provide an alternative to, are the most effective fighters in Syria. They’re actually doing a good business in recruiting fighters from the umbrella Free Syrian Army — that’s the group Idriss is supposed to run some day, and presumably Senator McCain believes he could do so with hundreds of millions of American dollars to fund and control them. Since the fighting has recently intensified and Assad’s forces, with Hezbollah and direct Iranian aid at their backs, seem to be winning back some territory, it will be not surprise if there are increased calls for supporting a leader such as Idriss, and whatever troops he can attract, but on the ground in Syria, the credibility and importance of the most effective fighting forces — jihadists — will keep growing.
Here’s a photo of McCain meeting with FSA members, including one who’s apparently a scuba enthusiast. The flag of free Syria is in the background: