McCain and three other senators visited Syria last week. (Kris Anne Bonifacio/Medill)

McCain and three other senators visited Syria last week. (Kris Anne Bonifacio/Medill)


WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators Tuesday called for more humanitarian aid to Syrian rebels after a trip to the war-torn country last week.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., announced they will join Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Chris Coons of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island  in signing a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to provide aid to the newly formed Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“There’s one main area of agreement among us, Democrats and Republicans, and that’s the need for United States to do more to help the Syrian people and their struggle for freedom,” McCain said.

The ongoing armed conflict in Syria began in 2011, as part of the so-called Arab spring, and has since escalated into a civil war. As of Jan. 3, the United Nations estimated the death toll at 60,000, half of whom are civilians.

McCain said during the five senators’ trip, a lot of Syrians expressed frustrations with the lack of aid from the United States government in their fight to topple the Assad regime.

Ayotte said most of the humanitarian aid from the United States is given to nongovernmental organizations, but the Syrian opposition has not received a lot of that aid. In order to expedite the end of the Syrian conflict, the senators said, the United States needs to help  the opposition council so that it can increase in size and strength.

Whitehouse added that they agreed on doing more to recognize the Syrian opposition, especially the Free Syrian Army, which has been the main military contingency fighting Assad’s forces in the civil war.

The senators also visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, and they stressed for U.S. aid to the Jordanian government to handle the influx of Syrian refugees into the nation.

“We need to be frontloading a more robust humanitarian effort in Jordan and making sure that our very good friends in Jordan have the resources that they need,” Whitehouse said.

Blumenthal highlighted the American interest in Syria, saying that if the United States fails to aid the Syrian opposition, there is a possibility that “jihadists and extremists” will fill the void.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was with the group of five on the Middle East trip but did not go to Syria, instead remaining in Afghanistan to serve on active duty as a reservist.

The trip included a visit to Egypt, and McCain alluded to a conversation he had with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on a video that surfaced last week. The video, in which Morsi criticized Zionists and Israel, was taped three years ago.

McCain also briefly commented on the upcoming Senate confirmation hearings of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to succeed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Sen. John Kerry to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

McCain was mum about his conversation with Hagel earlier Tuesday, saying only that he had a “frank and candid” talk with the Republican from Nebraska and was looking to his friend’s confirmation hearings.

On the other hand, McCain was lighthearted about Kerry’s hearings, even joking that they will “bring back waterboarding for the only time to get the truth out of him.”