Did John McCain meet with jihadists in Syria?

Upon his death, many are reviving the discredited claim that John McCain met with ISIS on his Syria trip in 2013. But some are settling for the less ambitious, and perhaps plausible, claim that he met with jihadists who were implicated in atrocities. E.g. the always annoying Ben Norton tweets: "John McCain was a staunch supporter of the CIA-backed, al-Qaeda-linked Salafi extremist opposition in Syria. In fact the late senator posed in a photo with a rebel who was involved in kidnapping 11 Lebanese Shia civilians." He links to a May 10, 2013 Reuters story which cites an undated article in Lebanon's Daily Star (apparently not translated into English) claiming that McCain was photographed in Syria with a rebel "implicated in" the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi'ite pilgrims the previous year. The man in question was apparently one  Mohammad Nour—"identified by two freed hostages as the chief spokesman and photographer for the Northern Storm brigade that kidnapped them."

The report adds: "A spokesman for McCain said none of the people he met identified themselves as Nour and it had not been his intention to meet anyone of that name."

The hostages were apparently seized in northern Syria as they returned from a pilgrimage in Iran, and were released following Turkish intercession. This was one of several such incidents in 2012. As we noted at the time, the rebels who detained the Shi'ites often claimed they were actually militiamen infiltrating into the country to back up Hezbollah, Assad and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. (There have certainly been plenty of Shi'ite militias from neighboring countries that have entered Syria to fight for Assad, whether or not they have disguised themselves as pilgrims.)

We are agnostic on these claims because we aren't in a position to know if they are true. The problem is that neither is Norton, yet he states as established "fact" what is actually an unproved allegation. Yet he'll still refer to the "alleged chemical attack" at Douma earlier this year! Not a lot of integrity here.

Nor is any evidence offered that the rebels McCain met with in Syria were "al-Qaeda-linked," or "Salafi extremists," or even "CIA-backed." All that is just supposed to be assumed, despite the presence even now of secular-nationalist elements in Syria's rebel alliance. And we remain deeply skeptical about how much US aid has actually reached the Syrian rebels.

Norton is also in a cozy mutual admiration society with the odious Max Blumenthal, who is now a full-on apologist for the genocidal Assad regime. The two team up for a smarmily named podcast called "Moderate Rebels," the whole point of which seems to be to sneer at the Syrian resistance.

Maddening irony here. As we have noted, McCain participated in war crimes in Vietnam. Two generations later, those who gloat at his death are covering up for equivalent (or possibly greater) war crimes by Assad and his allies. It fell to McCain, who was unapologetic about his Vietnam role (and generally reactionary), to try to drum up some support for the resistance in Syria—who are fighting a foreign-backed dictatorship, just as the Vietnamese were. 

Are the Syrian rebels responsible for crimes and atrocities of their own? Of course. The trajectory toward sectarian war is one of the tragedies of the Syrian conflict, and a bitter fruit of the lack of solidarity for the secular opposition from the outside world. Lots of people would like us to forget that the Vietnamese communists were also also responsible for acts of ethnic persecution. Ask the Montagnards. It didn't change the fundamental right and wrong of the conflict. Russia is playing the same role in Syria today that the US played in Vietnam 50 years ago. And no atrocities by the rebels change that.