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Panetta: U.S. sends forces to Jordan’s border with Syria
BRUSSELS — The U.S. has sent military troops to the Jordan-Syria border to help build a headquarters in Jordan and bolster that country’s military capabilities in the event that violence escalates along its border with Syria, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday.
Speaking at a NATO conference of defense ministers in Brussels, Mr. Panetta said the U.S. has been working with Jordan to monitor chemical and biological weapons sites in Syria and also to help Jordan deal with refugees pouring over the border from Syria.
But the revelation of U.S. military personnel so close to the 19-month-old Syrian conflict suggests an escalation in the U.S. military involvement in the conflict, even as Washington pushes back on any suggestion of a direct intervention in Syria.
“We have a group of our forces there working to help build a headquarters and to ensure that we make the relationship between the United States and Jordan a strong one so that we can deal with all the possible consequences of what’s happening in Syria,” Mr. Panetta said.
The development comes with the U.S. presidential election less than a month away, and at a time when Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, has been criticizing President Obama’s foreign policy, accusing the administration of being passive in the convulsive Mideast region.
The defense secretary and other administration officials have expressed concern about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
Mr. Panetta said last week that the United States believes that while the weapons are still secure, intelligence suggests the regime might have moved the weapons to protect them.
The Obama administration has said that Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would change the U.S. policy of providing only nonlethal aid to the rebels seeking to topple him.
Pentagon press secretary George Little, traveling with Mr. Panetta, said the U.S. and Jordan agreed that “increased cooperation and more detailed planning are necessary in order to respond to the severe consequences of the Assad regime’s brutality.”
He said the U.S. has provided medical kits, water tanks, and other forms of humanitarian aid to help Jordanians assist Syrian refugees fleeing into their country.
A defense official in Washington said the forces are made up of 100 military planners and other personnel who stayed on in Jordan after attending an annual exercise in May, and several dozen more have flown in since, operating from a joint U.S.-Jordanian military center north of Amman that Americans have used for years.
Meanwhile, Turkey has reinforced its border with artillery guns and deployed more fighter jets to an air base close to the border region after an errant Syrian mortar shell killed five people in a Turkish border town last week and Turkey retaliated with artillery strikes.
Turkish military chief Gen. Necdet Ozel vowed Wednesday to respond with more force to any further shelling from Syria, keeping up the pressure on its southern neighbor a day after NATO said it stood ready to defend Turkey.
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