WASHINGTON – Sen. Angus King of Maine returned from the Middle East on Friday more comfortable with the U.S. decision to supply arms to Syrian rebels but still conflicted about what he described as the country’s “most immediate” foreign policy challenge.

King accompanied the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, on a fact-finding mission to Turkey and Jordan that began Sunday.

They met with top diplomatic and military officials – including Gen. Salim Idris, chief of staff of the rebel Free Syrian Army – and toured camps for refugees who have fled fighting that’s estimated to have killed more than 100,000 Syrians.

“It presents one of the most difficult foreign policy challenges” for the U.S., King said Friday in a telephone interview. “What do we do when we know there is a humanitarian crisis going on in another country? What response do we have?”

Fighting continued to rage in Syria on Friday as the regime of President Bashar Assad pounded the rebel-held city of Homs and blocked humanitarian relief for civilians.

In a sign of the international scope of the conflict, Assad’s forces in Homs are reportedly being supplemented by guerrillas from the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, The Associated Press reported. Russia is also a key ally to the Assad regime.

King, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said he agreed to accompany Levin, D-Mich., on the trip to better understand how the conflict in Syria is affecting the region’s stability and U.S. national security interests.

It was King’s first official overseas congressional trip — paid for by U.S. taxpayers — since he was sworn into the Senate in January.

King said he was uneasy with the Obama administration’s recent decision to begin sending “lethal aid” to Syrian rebels. But he said he was convinced, after meeting with people during the trip, that providing military support is necessary to keep the Assad regime from defeating the rebels.

“Clearly and very importantly, there is no expectation of American troops on the ground in Syria,” King said. “Nobody wants that. Nobody is proposing that … but we have a huge role to play in helping to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis.”

King said the U.S. must provide food, money and medical supplies for humanitarian relief even as it seeks to work with coalition partners to bring about a transition of power away from Assad.

He said he is still unsure how far the U.S. should go in supplying arms to the rebels, given concerns about those weapons falling into the hands of militant groups that are unfriendly to the U.S. and its allies.

Levin, a veteran lawmaker who heads one of Congress’ most powerful committees, has been more forceful in calling on the Obama administration to get more involved in Syria. A spokeswoman for Levin could not be reached for comment Friday.

In a letter last month, Levin, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey urged Obama to take “more decisive military actions.”

“At the same time, the conflict in Syria is deteriorating so dramatically that providing arms to the opposition alone is unlikely to shift the military balance of power against Assad,” the senators wrote. “We must also degrade Assad’s ability to use air power and ballistic missiles against civilian populations and opposition forces in Syria.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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