BEIRUT: U.S. Senator John McCain was unwittingly photographed with a known affiliate of the rebel group responsible for the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims one year ago, during a brief and highly publicized visit inside Syria this week.
The U.S. senator became the highest-level American official to enter Syria since the uprising began. A former presidential candidate and staunch opponent of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy, he has been leading calls to better arm moderate opposition groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
During a brief visit to northern Syria from Turkey, confirmed by his office Monday, McCain met with rebel leaders calling for greater support in their fight against Assad. He was accompanied by the chief of staff of the rebel Supreme Military Council, Gen. Salim Idriss.
The pilgrims were kidnapped by armed rebels in Azaz, in Syria’s Aleppo province, in May last year as they were making their way back to Lebanon from Iran.
Two of the kidnapped, Anwar Ibrahim and Hussein Ali Omar were released in August and September but intense negotiations are still underway for the remaining nine, believed to be in the custody of the “Northern Storm” brigade, headed at the time by rebel commander Ammar Al-Dadikhi, aka Abu Ibrahim. Dadikhi was widely believed killed in fighting with Syrian regime forces several months ago. The Northern Storm Brigade also claimed responsibility for the kidnap of a Lebanese journalist in October.
According to families of the remaining captives and one of the released men, Anwar Ibrahim, one of the men standing alongside McCain in a photograph released by the senator’s office, is Mohammad Nour, the chief spokesman and photographer for the Northern Storm kidnappers. Nour appears in several other shots released by news agencies where McCain is posing with different officials.
Ibrahim and other members of the kidnapped family said they recognized Nour, and another man affiliated with the group, also identified as “Abu Ibrahim,” immediately after seeing the photos, widely circulated by international media following McCain’s visit.
Ibrahim, who had seen Nour multiple times in person during his captivity, said he was a close affiliate of Dadikhi who had photographed him and his fellow captors during the media campaign surrounding his kidnap. Nour has also acted as the spokesman for the kidnappers.
Photographs of Nour with the group of kidnapped pilgrims have been independently verified by The Daily Star. In the photograph released by McCain’s office, he is seen standing holding a camera, behind the senator as he poses alongside Idriss.
“I recognized him immediately. He was the photographer who was brought in to take our photos [during captivity]. He works with the kidnappers. He knows them very well,” Ibrahim said. “I don’t know anything about why McCain was visiting, or what he wanted, but I was very surprised to see [Mohammad Nour] there.”
A spokesman from McCain’s office said the senator had traveled to Syria with Idriss in coordination with the Syrian Emergency Task Force to meet with two Free Syrian Army commanders, but denied he had met with the two individuals identified by the kidnap victims.
“A number of other Syrian commanders joined the meeting, but none of them identified himself as Mohammad Nour or Abu Ibrahim,” the spokesman for McCain, Brian Rogers, said. “Two members of our organization were present in the meeting, and no one called himself by either name.”
Rogers said the photograph was “regrettable” but said Nour had not communicated with McCain.
“A number of the Syrians who greeted Senator McCain upon his arrival in Syria asked to take pictures with him, and as always, the senator complied. If the individual photographed with Senator McCain is in fact Mohammad Nour that is regrettable.
“But it would be ludicrous to suggest that the senator in any way condones the kidnapping of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims or has any communication with those responsible. Senator McCain condemns such heinous actions in the strongest possible terms.”
Idriss, a U.S. favorite as a possible conduit for weapons to rebel forces, is tasked with uniting the various factions of the Free Syrian Army in the hope of bolstering a cohesive, moderate rebel front amid fears of a growing role of extreme Islamist fighters on the ground in Syria. During McCain’s visit, Idriss reportedly requested a no fly-zone be enforced, more weapons for the rebels and airstrikes against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah forces playing an increasing role in supporting Syrian government forces from Lebanon.
While the Obama administration has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in nonlethal aid to the rebels, it has so far been reluctant to arm opposition forces, fearing weapons may fall in to the hands of extremists.
McCain, who sits on the Senate Committee for Foreign Relations, has repeatedly called for the U.S. government to arm moderate groups. Last week the committee voted overwhelmingly to authorize a bill to provide small arms and training to opposition groups “that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States.”
McCain, however, according to comments reported in the Wall Street Journal, said more actions and heavier weapons were required “if we are going to reverse the tide that’s now taking place in favor of Bashar Assad.”
Rogers reiterated the purpose of the visit was to encourage “critical” support for the rebels.
“The senator believes his visit to Syria was critical to supporting the many brave Syrians who are fighting for their lives and the freedom of their country against a brutal regime and its foreign allies that are massacring Syrian citizens on Syrian territory,” he said.