U.S. Republican John McCain, who sits on the Senate Committee for Foreign Relations, entered Syria illegally on May 27 with the help of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an NGO linked to Israel.
The senator and a former presidential candidate is the highest-level American official to enter Syria since the uprising began. He has been leading calls to better arm moderate opposition groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
During his visit, he 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.
On photographs with the group of kidnapped pilgrims published by the association, which have been independently verified by The Daily Star, the Senator can be seen posing with Mohammad Nour, spokesman for the Northern Storm Brigade. In the photograph released by McCain’s office, he is seen standing holding a camera, behind the senator as he poses alongside Idriss.
However, the photo that was published caused deep consternation in Lebanon, where Shiite families identified the person in the doorway as Nour, who is holding the Lebanese hostages.
As it happens, this actual brigade that McCain was colluding with abducted 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in Azaz, 9 of whom are still being held.
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.
Contacted by The Daily Star (Beirut), the Senator’s office vows not to know Mohammad Nour, who supposedly “sneaked in” when the photograph was being snapped. John McCain refutes any allegation of collusion with the kidnappers.
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.
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.
Senator McCain went to Syria in an attempt to prove that weapons delivery to “moderate rebels” only could be easily controlled. His trip missed the mark.