Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and his aides swear the Syrian “rebels” he was pictured last year with weren’t ISIS members or supporters, and the mainstream media is by and large buying the 2008 GOP presidential nominee’s story.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has endured brutal criticism–media fact checkers, reporters, and political figures have shredded him–for questioning just who McCain posed with.
But a closer look at the situation tells perhaps a different story than McCain’s office or the mainstream media have pushed.
The criticism of McCain centers around how the Arizona senator met with Syrian rebel leaders in May 2013 when he visited the country. McCain posed for photographs with those people, and since then rumors have sprouted up across the Internet that he met with ISIS or some other terrorist kidnappers or nefarious forces.
“The people in the pictures with Senator McCain in Syria included General Salim Idris, then-Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Mouaz Moustafa, the Executive Director of the DC-based Syrian Emergency Task Force (which supports the moderate opposition and helped arrange some of the trip), and fighters and commanders from the Northern Storm Brigade, a FSA-aligned group,” McCain’s spokesman Brian Rogers told Breitbart News.
Rogers said that the senator and his team aren’t naming the “fighters and commanders from the Northern Storm Brigade, a FSA-aligned group,” because “ISIS actually threatened to kill them all, and we don’t want to put their lives at risk.” Rogers provided Breitbart News with a link to the ISIS threat to those fighters.
“ISIS targeted the Northern Storm because ISIS considers them apostates and because Northern Storm met with Sen. McCain,” Rogers said. “ISIS actually wrote out a statement that accused Northern Storm of treachery for reasons including: ‘Meeting with U.S. Senator John McCain in the hangar and making a contract with him against the Islamists.’ The statement goes on to demand that Northern Storm surrender and repent to ISIS or be killed.”
“ISIS actually killed many Northern Storm members, and we’re not going to put them at any further risk by naming them,” Rogers added.
But there’s just one problem with McCain’s office’s story. Now, McCain’s team says the senator didn’t meet with any bad figures but declines to name them, for what seems to be a legitimate reason–although those who are publicly leading combat against ISIS and against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime are probably publicly known figures there.
Just last year, however, McCain’s office had no clue who the senator met. When allegations surfaced that the senator may have met with terrorists who kidnapped someone, Rogers–McCain’s communications director–went on the record to multiple media outlets to say he didn’t know who he was meeting with, and if he did meet with kidnapper terrorists, that would be regrettable.
“None of the individuals the senator planned to meet with was named Mohamad Nour or Abu Ibrahim,” Rogers told CNN in late May 2013, right after the trip. “A number of other Syrian commanders joined the meeting, but none of them identified himself as Mohamad Nour or Abu Ibrahim.”
Rogers added later in his statement to CNN that he and the senator did not know who he was meeting with.
“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,” Rogers said. “If the individual photographed with Senator McCain is in fact Mohamed Nour, that is regrettable. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that the Senator in any way condones the kidnapping of Lebanese Shia pilgrims or has any communication with those responsible. Senator McCain condemns such heinous actions in the strongest possible terms.”
Of course it’s ludicrous to suggest that McCain would condone the act of kidnapping, and nobody serious is suggesting that. The point many critics of McCain’s policies–including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)–are making is that Americans have no way of knowing which team any one of these figures is on.
“Here’s the problem,” Paul said in an interview with The Daily Beast this week. “He [McCain] did meet with ISIS, and had his picture taken, and didn’t know it was happening at the time. That really shows you the quandary of determining who are the moderates and who aren’t. If you don’t speak Arabic, and you don’t understand that some people will lie to you–I really think that we don’t have a good handle on who are the moderates and who aren’t, and I think the objective evidence is that the ones doing most of the fighting and most of the battles among the rebels in Syria are the radical Islamists.”
Paul has been roundly criticized for the remarks, starting with the publication he made them to. The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi wrote that Paul’s statement means he “repeated a thoroughly debunked rumor.” The Washington Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave Paul “Four Pinocchios,” its highest rating of dishonesty, for the statement. Kessler wrote that this story is one where he regrets “we are limited to just Four Pinocchios,” because there is “zero evidence that any of the men that McCain met with in Syria are linked to the Islamic State.”
Despite this pile-on by the media and political establishment, Paul has a serious point here, though. McCain really didn’t know who he was meeting with, and even if they were the supposedly “moderate” Free Syrian Army, who’s to know that they aren’t elements of the Free Syrian Army working alongside ISIS?
Patrick Poole, an esteemed national security reporter and expert on radical Islam for PJ Media, has reported that the Free Syrian Army’s commanders have admitted in public to working alongside ISIS. “As President Obama laid out his ‘strategy’ last night for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and as bipartisan leadership in Congress pushes to approve as much as $4 billion to arm Syrian ‘rebels,’ it should be noted that the keystone to his anti-Assad policy — the ‘vetted moderate’ Free Syrian Army (FSA) — is now admitting that they, too, are working with the Islamic State,” Poole wrote on Sept. 10.
Poole cites the Lebanese newspaper Daily Star, which quotes a Free Syrian Army brigade commander as saying he is working with the “Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate — both U.S.-designated terrorist organizations.”
Specifically, the quotes Poole pulls are:
“We are collaborating with the Islamic State and the Nusra Front by attacking the Syrian Army’s gatherings in… Qalamoun,” said Bassel Idriss, the commander of an FSA-aligned rebel brigade.
“We have reached a point where we have to collaborate with anyone against unfairness and injustice,” confirmed Abu Khaled, another FSA commander who lives in Arsal.
“Let’s face it: The Nusra Front is the biggest power present right now in Qalamoun and we as FSA would collaborate on any mission they launch as long as it coincides with our values,” he added.
In a lengthy floor speech on Thursday, Paul ripped the foreign policy establishment in Washington for assuming that FSA and ISIS are really distinct entities.
“According to a New York Times report, over a year ago, the CIA began training Syrian rebels in nearby Jordan, thousands of them, along with delivering arms and ammunition,” Paul said, according to a transcript of the speech provided to Breitbart News by his office. “New York Times reports also detailed the huge arms and financial transfers from Quatar to the Syrian rebels, beginning as early as 2011. No one really knows where that all ended up: Jane’s Terrorism Center noted, the transfer of Quatari arms to targeted groups has the same practical effect as shipping them to Al Nusra, a violent jihadist force. The New York Times further detailed that Sudan has provided anti-tank missiles and other arms.”
Shortly after those comments, Paul said that America can’t be sure–since supposedly “vetted moderates” are working alongside ISIS–who any of them are. He added that even if some might be loyal now, they could change their allegiances in a heartbeat–saying that some officials estimate that more than half of FSA forces have defected to ISIS.
“So the idea that these rebels haven’t been armed before is ludicrous on it’s face. It is also ludicrous to believe that we know where all of the money, arms and ammunition will end up, or who will end up benefiting from these shipments. Why? Because we don’t know for sure who the groups all are,” Paul said. “Even when we think we do, loyalties shift and groups become amorphous, with alleged moderates lining up with jihadists. And finally, moderate groups have often sold their weapons or had them seized by the jihadist elements led by ISIS.”
McCain’s office, however, fiercely defends the notion that FSA is not working alongside ISIS.
“Also, these reports of some kind of ‘truce’ between the FSA and ISIS have also been debunked,” Rogers, McCain’s spokesman, told Breitbart News–citing a piece from the Daily Beast to back up his claims. “While there have been brief cease-fires between the groups to collect bodies of those killed during fighting, as this Josh Rogin article makes clear, there’s no ‘truce’ between FSA and ISIS.”
And maybe there is no formal “truce” between FSA and ISIS, but the reports of mass defections and quotes from FSA leaders and brigade commanders on record saying they are working with ISIS makes this much more complicated than the clear cut-and-dry issue the mainstream media have made it so as to rip Paul. When McCain’s office won’t name who exactly he met with, who exactly he’s photographed with–after last year admitting in public they didn’t know who he greeted in Syria–are we supposed to just take his word for it that some of those FSA leaders aren’t now working with ISIS–or maybe have outright joined ISIS, like that other FSA commander Poole and the Daily Star quote?