US senators visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar to talk with royals about training Syrian rebels

By on January 18, 2015


journalistanbul / Shutterstock.com
journalistanbul / Shutterstock.com

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – A delegation of U.S. senators led by John McCain have met separately with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman and Qatar’s emir, part of a regional tour focusing on training Syrian rebels.

A message on the official Twitter feed for McCain, R-Arizona, said that the U.S. delegation met with the head of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed al-Jarba, and the commander of Saudi Arabia’s training and equipment program. The U.S. senators also met in neighbouring Qatar with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the country’s emir.

The delegation included Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, Angus King, I-Maine, and Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, the state news agency reported. All sit on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, which McCain chairs.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are staunch supporters of Syria’s opposition, which is mired in a nearly four-year civil war to oust President Bashar Assad’s government.

The meetings took place Saturday, a day after the Pentagon said that as many as 1,000 U.S. troops and support personnel would be sent to sites in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help train select Syrian rebels. Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the training by a mix of U.S. special forces and conventional U.S. troops could begin as early as spring.

In Syria itself, al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate said it shot down a military cargo aircraft laden with ammunition and food in the country’s north.

The Nusra Front said in its Twitter feed Sunday that their fighters shot down the aircraft overnight near the Duhour air base. The incident was also reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian rebels and militants have shot down government aircraft in the past using anti-aircraft weapons.

Western officials who back rebel efforts to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar Assad have been reluctant to provide more anti-aircraft weapons, fearing they would fall in the hands of anti-Western militant groups, like the Nusra Front. But more moderate groups have said they need the weapons because Assad has relied on military aircraft to bomb civilian areas, killing thousands and forcing tens of thousands more to flee opposition-held areas.