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US secret mission sent to Jordan to control Syrian chemical weapons report

Published: Updated:
The United States military has secretly sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there to prepare for the possibility that Syria could lose control of its chemical weapons and be positioned should the turmoil in Syria expand into a wider conflict, a report published by the New York Times on Wednesday said.

The secret mission, led by a senior American officer, will also help in handling the estimated 180,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed the border and are severely straining the country’s resources, the report said.

The task force is based at a Jordanian military training center built into an old rock quarry north of Amman.

According to the report, U.S. officials familiar with the operation said the mission includes drawing up plans to try to insulate Jordan, a strong U.S., from the upheaval in Syria and to avoid the kind of clashes now occurring along the border of Syria and Turkey.

“We have been working closely with our Jordanian partners on a variety of issues related to Syria for some time now,” George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, was quoted as saying by the New York Times. He added that a specific concern was the security of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. “As we’ve said before, we have been planning for various contingencies, both unilaterally and with our regional partners.”

The Obama administration has declined to intervene in the Syrian conflict beyond providing communications equipment and other non-lethal assistance to the rebels. However, the outpost near Amman could play a broader role should U.S. policy change.

The New York Times mentioned that there were no comments on the U.S. military operation from neither the Pentagon nor the Jordanian Embassy in Washington.

Analysts have always said that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad might deliberately force the Syrian conflict to spill over beyond the Syrian borders in order to keep the world’s attention away from the violence committed against civilians inside Syrian.

Over the past week, Syria and Turkey have exchanged artillery and mortar fire across Syria’s northern border. In western Syria, intense fighting recently broke out in villages near the border crossing that leads to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. To the east, the Syrian government has lost control of some border crossings, including the one near al-Qaim in Iraq.

Recent scuffles have also broken out between the Syrian military and Jordanians guarding the country’s northern border, where many families have ties to Syria.

Jordan, which was one of the first Arab countries to call for Assad’s resignation, has become increasingly concerned that Islamic armed groups, coming to join the fight in Syria, could cross the porous border between the two countries.

Al Arabiya has recently revealed that Assad gave instructions for his agents to try to ignite unrest in Jordan. According to “classified intelligence documents” leaked to Al Arabiya, Assad gave orders to provide peaceful protesters, who call for reform in Jordan, with weapons.

According to the New York Times report, the U.S. mission in Jordan quietly began this summer. In May, the U.S. organized a major training exercise, which was dubbed Eager Lion. About 12,000 troops from 19 countries, including Special Forces troops, participated in the exercise.

After it ended, the small American contingent stayed on and the task force was established at a Jordanian training center north of Amman. It includes communications specialists, logistics experts, planners, trainers and headquarters staff members, the report mentioned citing American officials.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met in Amman in August with King Abdullah II of Jordan. Panetta was then followed in September by Gen. James N. Mattis, the head of Central Command, who met with senior Jordanian officials in Amman.

Members of the American task force are spending the bulk of their time working with the Jordanian military on logistics — figuring out how to deploy tons of food, water and latrines to the border, for example, and training the Jordanian military to handle the refugees, the report said.

Jordan is currently hosting around 100,000 Syrians who have either registered or are awaiting registration, the United Nations said.