WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain, a proponent of arming Syrian rebels, quietly slipped into Syria for a meeting with anti-government fighters Monday.
Spokeswoman Rachael Dean confirms the Arizona Republican made the visit.
She declined to comment further about the trip.
The visit took place amid meetings in Paris involving efforts to secure participation of Syrias 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 Bashar Assads regime after June 1, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said after the meeting.
Two years of violence in Syria has killed more than 70,000 people.
President Obama has demanded that Assad leave power, while Russia has stood by Syria, its closest ally in the Arab world.
McCain has been a fierce critic of Obama administration policy while stopping short of backing U.S. ground troops in Syria, but he supports aggressive steps against the Assad regime.
Gen. Salem Idris, chief of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, accompanied McCain across the Turkey-Syria border.
McCain met with leaders of the Free Syrian Army from across the country, who asked him for increased U.S. support, including heavy weapons, a no-fly zone and airstrikes on Syrian government and Hezbollah forces, according to The Daily Beast, which first reported the senators unannounced visit.
The EUs decision followed an all-day meeting of foreign ministers Monday that laid bare EU hesitation on feeding arms in a foreign conflict only months after the 27-member bloc won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Though no EU country has any such plans now to send arms, Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, said the decision sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime.
In a bid to force Syria to participate in good faith at the prospective Geneva II talks next month, the meeting in Brussels dangled the option of sending in weapons and military equipment as soon as Saturday, when the current sanctions regime ends.
The prospect of EU weapons for the rebels, while maintaining stiff economic sanctions against Assads regime, also sends a message to Russia. Moscow has unabashedly sent weapons to Assads regime – and EU arms deliveries could partially rebalance the civil war when it comes to firepower.
Several EU ministers said arming the opposition would create a more level playing field that could force Assad into a negotiated settlement.
Britain and France – the EUs biggest military powers – had been pushing the bloc to lift its embargo on delivery of weapons into Syria to help the embattled opposition. But Austria, which has sent peacekeepers to the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel, was vocally opposed – one of several EU countries that argued that the region is already awash in weapons.
The EU nations also agreed everything possible should be done to control any exports and make sure they do not fall into the hands of extremists or terrorists – one of the thorniest issues for France and Britain in their calls to arm the rebels.
Each country will require adequate safeguards against misuse of authorizations (for export) granted, the EU text said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks earlier Monday to return to Paris to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who are leading the effort to bring the two warring Syrian sides to the negotiating table.
Assads government has agreed in principle to participate in peace talks in Geneva, but the exact date, agenda and participants still remain unclear.
Concerning McCains visit, the White House declined to comment late Monday. A State Department official said only that the department was aware of McCain crossing into Syrian territory on Monday.
Last Tuesday, the Senate 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. McCain is a member of the committee.