TODAY   |  May 28, 2013

Sen. John McCain meets with Free Syrian Army leader

John McCain crossed into Syria from Turkey to meet with Salim Idris, the general commander of the Free Syrian Army. McCain wants the U.S. to support the Free Syrian Army with arms and a no-fly zone. NBC’s Richard Engel reports and NBC’s David Gregory discusses the visit.

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>>> the president's trip comes as we learn more about a surprise visit by senator john mccain over the weekend to war-torn syria . the conflict there is escalating and appears to be involving other countries more and more. nbc's chief foreign correspondent, richard engel , is in beirut, lebanon for us this morning. richard, good morning to you.

>> reporter: good morning, savannah. the violence is spreading. overnight, three lebanese soldiers were killed along the syrian border. senator mccain has long been pushing for the u.s. to become more involved in syria . and now the senator has gone to syria himself to express support for the rebels. the visit lasted just a few hours. no big delegation, secret and low-profile. but still, a high-risk trip to an area that has recently seen air strikes and suicide attacks. senator mccain crossed into syria from turkey, accompanied by the pre syrian army , the rebel faction he wants the u.s. to support with arms and a no-fly zone. washington already supplies the syrian army with food and medicine. mccain met with the free syrian army 's general commander, who spoke exclusively to nbc earlier this month. he is a moderate, and the mccain trip in part seemed aimed at highlighting him as a partner in a conflict where white house officials have suggested there's no one they trust enough for support. instead the white house is pushing for a negotiated settlement, and the u.s. and russian-backed conference in geneva next month.

>> we are committed to this. we want to make this conference happen if possible, together with many other countries that have joined up.

>> reporter: but as the peace conference is debated, bloodshed in syria continues, and its neighbors slipped back to sectarian violence . sunni shiite fighting now spreadi spreading into lebanon where rockets exploded over the weekend and into iraq where there were at least 15 explosions monday. most of them car bombs, most in shiite markets against civilians, killing more than 60 people. despite years of american sacrifice, the iraq war is coming back, as syria drags the middle east down with it. the european union is also now taking action, lifting late last night an arms embargo , making it legal for european nations to supply weapons to the syrian opposition. savannah.

>> richard engel in beirut, thank you. let's turn to david gregory , moderator of "meet the press."

>> good morning.

>> senator mccain has been a proponent of more support by the u.s., but the eu has now cleared the way to send arms to the rebels, as well. is the pressure on the white house intensifying?

>> well, there may be intensifying pressure, but i don't think the president necessarily wants to move, certainly not unilaterally. all the talk is about who else is involved. there is greater pressure about arming syrian rebels. the question is, which ones? john mccain and other republicans in congress have been wary of some of the fishers in that opposition in syria . who do you trust, who don't you trust, who is a legitimate opposition force to assad, who is, of course, the particular tater in syria . right now i think what richard just said, the fact that the e.u. might be sending arms there, a better sign for the administration that wants diplomacy and get other countries involved than just the pressure on the united states .

>> ask david, beyond this issue of who are the rebels and whether some are aligned with al qaeda , for example, there is also the question of whether a no-fly zone or arming some of the moderate elements of the opposition would be enough to give a decisive victory to the opposition.

>> right. it is not clear it would be. it's not clear that a no-fly zone would be effective. that certainly carries additional risk to u.s. aircraft, if it's just a u.s. operation. there's the specter of chemical weapons , as well. and there have been some in capping who have said perhaps there is an international force that goes in just to protect those weapon sites. but all of this is premature. what the president said appears to still stand. he will only want to intervene if he felt the united states could make a difference. making a difference at this juncture appears to be getting other allies involved, and continuing to work the russians very hard who can can push assad potentially out of power.

>> let's move closer to home. governor christie meeting with the president today. some republicans getting too chummy with the president. last time the president visited. is this still an open issue of vulnerability for governor christie ?

>> oh, you know, if it is, i don't think he's terribly worried about it. this is governing 101. you're governor in a storm-ravaged state, you have an opportunity to bring money and attention to your state with a presidential visit. you don't pass up that opportunity. if he wants to run for president, you can bet, issue one will be his management during this period. and i think he will keep those republicans at bay who said somehow he got too chummy with the president. remember, the real concern in the romney camp at the time in the election was that it was a momentum-stealer. that at the time sandy hit and the president arrived it basically shut down their campaign, and is the attention they were getting. that's not the danger here. and, again, biggest media market in the country, governor christie appearing with the president, he's not going to pass up that opportunity.

>> we may see those images in a republican primary added in 2016 . david, thank you so much.