John McCain crossed into Syria from Turkey to meet with Salim Idris, the general commander of the Free Syrian Army. McCain wants the U.S. to support the Free Syrian Army with arms and a no-fly zone. NBC's Richard Engel reports and NBC's David Gregory discusses the visit.
Sen. John McCain, one of Congress' strongest advocates for increasing America's role in Syria, on Monday became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country since a bloody civil war broke out there more than two years ago, NBC News has confirmed.
McCain, R-Ariz., crossed the Turkey-Syria border with Gen. Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, The Daily Beast first reported.
McCain stayed in the country for several hours during the unannounced trip and met with rebel leaders, who called on the U.S. to increase its support of the Syrian opposition by providing weapons, a no-fly zone and air strikes on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Mouaz Moustafa / Syrian Emergency Task Force via AFP - Getty Images
John McCain poses for a picture with Syrian rebel leader General Salim Idris (center-right) in the Syrian border town of Bab al-Salam on Monday.
"The visit of Sen. McCain to Syria is very important and very useful, especially at this time," Idris told The Daily Beast. "We need American help to have change on the ground; we are now in a very critical situation."
McCain has been one of the most vocal critics of how President Barack Obama's administration has handled the civil war, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives, according to U.N. estimates. McCain has shied from calling for U.S. boots on the ground there, but he has advocated for the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone and further arm the rebel groups.
The White House declined to comment on the GOP senator's visit.
Earlier this month, McCain wrote an op/ed for Time Magazine in which he said inaction in Syria would further destabilize the Middle East and threaten U.S. interests abroad.
New reports of chemical weapons attacks by Assad's forces have surfaced in recent days as fighting has increased. Obama has called the confirmed use of such weapons a "red line" warranting further involvement — but it is unclear what that involvement may be.
Violence erupts from Baghdad to Lebanon just as Sen. John McCain makes a surprise visit in Syria with rebels. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
The rebels told McCain on Monday that chemical weapons have been used against them on multiple occasions, according to The Daily Beast.
Further complicating the conflict is Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah's support of Assad, which was formally announced Saturday. The news stoked the fears of those already worried that the Syrian crisis could spill into Lebanon.
Leaders of the Free Syrian Army told McCain that they are running out of ammunition and need more advanced weapons to counter Assad, according to the report. They also said there is a growing number of Russian military advisers, as well as increased amounts of Iranian and Iraqi troops, on the ground in Syria.
News of McCain's trip was followed Monday by British Foreign Minister William Hague's announcement that European Union governments had agreed to ease an arms embargo to help the rebels.
A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.
EU foreign ministers met in Brussels for 12 hours Monday to bridge their differences over the issue, with Britain and France pushing to allow European governments to deliver arms.
"It was a difficult decision for some countries, but it was necessary and right to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria," Hague said afterward. "It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so."
Hague stressed that Britain hadn't actually decided to send arms to the rebels, but he said the agreement means "we now have the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate."
NBC's Kristen Welker contributed to this report
This story was originally published on Mon May 27, 2013 3:40 PM EDT