Riyadh: A delegation of US senators led by John McCain have met separately with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman and Qatar's emir, part of a regional tour focused on training Syrian rebels. As they met, hundreds of civilians fled rebel-held areas near Damascus that had been blockaded for over a year.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are staunch supporters of Syria's opposition, which is mired in a nearly four-year war to oust President Bashar Assad. The meetings took place Saturday, a day after the Pentagon said that as many as 1,000 US troops and support personnel would be sent to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help train vetted Syrian rebels.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the training by a mix of US special and conventional forces could begin as early as this spring.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who accompanied McCain, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the rebels would be unable to defeat the Islamic State group without a no-fly zone to protect them from government aircraft.
"The current strategy is failing. Everybody has told us on this trip that if you don't have a no-fly zone, the people we're trying, the Free Syrian Army that we're training, is going to go back into Syria and get slaughtered by Assad."
A message on the official Twitter feed for McCain, R-Arizona, said the US delegation met with the commander of Saudi Arabia's training and equipment program and with Ahmed al-Jarba, whom it identified as the president of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. Al-Jarba stepped down as SNC president in July 2014. The current SNC president is Khaled Khoja. The reason for the discrepancy in McCain's tweet was not immediately clear.
The US senators also met in neighboring Qatar with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the country's emir. The delegation included 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.
In Syria, meanwhile, hundreds of civilians fled from rebel-held towns east of Damascus that had been blockaded for at least 18 months.
Hundreds of women and children could be seen in footage aired by the Lebanese channel al-Mayadeen sitting in what appeared to be a large courtyard.
One of the women said rebel fighters seized men fleeing with them. "As soon as you leave, they'll start hitting us," she said they told the group, referring to government forces.