U.S. fighter jets and Patriot missiles arrived in Jordan over the weekend, as the Obama administration this week considers “all possible options” in increasing its support to rebels in neighboring Syria, according to a White House spokeswoman.
A detachment of F-16s and a battery of Patriot missiles were deployed with 5,000 U.S. personnel to Jordan for the third annual “Eager Lion” exercises there, and may remain there after the training, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Jack Miller said.
The planes, missiles and troops, along with 3,000 allied forces mainly from Jordan but including representatives from 18 other nations, will be rehearsing “a number of irregular warfare scenarios designed to enhance our interoperability with allies and partners,” Lt. Col. Miller said.
He said the exercises are “designed to enhance regional stability” in the Middle East: “They send a message to our allies … and to everyone else in the region.”
“We continue to consult closely with the government of Jordan about their security needs in light of the Syrian crisis,” he said.
If Jordan requested it, the United States would “consider extending deployment” of the Eager Lion forces.
Two Patriot missile batteries already have been deployed to Turkey, under the aegis of NATO. They are designed to shoot down medium-range missiles, like the Scuds Syria is believed to have.
The deployment of the batteries is seen by analysts as a confidence-building measure for U.S. allies nervous about the spillover of violence from the two-year-old rebellion in Syria, which increasingly has taken on the characteristics of an Islamic insurgency, complete with al Qaeda affiliates, truck bombs and sectarian killings.
Syrian President Bashar Assad and many of his inner circle are Alawites, followers of a sect of Shiite Islam; the rebels are mainly Sunnis, including the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
In Washington, the increasing spillover of sectarian conflict is one factor driving what some observers say is a gathering consensus among the president’s advisers that the U.S. has to step up its involvement.
“At the President’s direction, his national security team continues to consider all possible options” on Syria, White House national security spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in an email.
She added tat the administration’s objectives are to assist the rebels “serve the essential needs of the Syrian people and hasten a political transition to a post-Assad Syria.”
Ms. Meehan noted that the U.S. already has provided $250 million in non-lethal assistance for the rebels and more than twice that in humanitarian aid.
The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Secretary of State John F. Kerry had postponed a trip to the Middle East to take part in a series of White House meetings this week that could pave the way for a decision by President Obama to start arming rebels seen as “moderates.”
“The United States will continue to look for ways to strengthen the capabilities of the Syrian opposition, though we have no new announcements at this time,” Ms. Meehan said, calling the meetings this week “routine.”