Pentagon sends troops to Jordan to counter Syria chemical weapons threat

The Pentagon said this week it would send a small number of troops to Jordan to help forces there deal with Syria's chemical weapons threat and to prevent the civil war from spilling over.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon's budget for fiscal 2014 and beyond. He also talked about plans to send an Army unit to Jordan.

The Pentagon's decision to send a contingent of US troops to Jordan, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a congressional hearing this week, raises the question of whether the Obama administration has now moved one step closer to a military intervention in Syria.

Mr. Hagel told lawmakers that he green-lighted the deployment last week in order to “improve readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios.”

These troops, a unit from Fort Bliss in Texas, will bring the number of US forces in Jordan to more than 200. The plan is for the US troops to help train their Jordanian counterparts in the finer points of defending their border with Syria. 

But Hagel issued clear warnings against the dangers of an American military intervention in the Syrian civil war, which has so far claimed 75,000 lives. 

These US forces, he said, are not meant to be a stepping stone to US troops on the ground fighting alongside rebel contingents struggling to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

That’s because “a military intervention could have the unintended consequences of bringing the United States into a broader regional conflict, or proxy war,” Hagel told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We have an obligation and responsibility to think through the consequences of direct – any direct – US military action in Syria.”

A US military intervention could “hinder humanitarian relief options,” he explained. It could also “embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy, and uncertain military commitment.”

Not all lawmakers were impressed by this argument. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona called the notion that a US military operation against Mr. Assad could hinder humanitarian actions “almost laughable.” 

In refugee camps, people “are angry and bitter because we haven’t helped them. And we are breeding a generation of people who will – as was articulated to me by a teacher in one of the refugee camps – these children will take revenge on the people who refused to help them.” 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nation’s top military officer, echoed Hagel’s concerns.

The responsibility of his job, he said, “has been and will always will be to provide the secretary of Defense and the president of the United States with options. Some of these options involve the use of military force.”

“The decision to use force, especially lethal force, is not one that any of us takes lightly. In weighing options, we have a responsibility to align the use of force to the intended outcome,” he said. “We also have a responsibility to articulate risk.” 

For now, General Dempsey told lawmakers that he does “not see that the introduction of military force would produce the outcomes that we seek.”

The new US troops flowing into the region primarily will be responsible for helping Jordanian forces prepare for a response to a chemical weapons attack, and for preventing spillover of violence across Jordan’s borders.

These troops bring with them training and equipment to detect and stop chemical weapons, and the ability to help Jordanian forces identify and secure the weapons.

Sending US troops into Syria would not guarantee that the US could secure chemical weapons caches. “So if we had confidence that [the anti-Assad rebel groups] could secure it, then they could secure it. If we have to go in there, it would be non-permissive,” said Dempsey. (“Non-permissive” means violent in US military parlance.)

And even then, senior US military officials say they are not confident that the US troops could secure the chemical weapons, “simply because,” Dempsey explained, Assad’s forces have “been moving it, and the number of sites is quite numerous.”

As a result, he cautioned, “before we take action, we have to be prepared for what comes next.”

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