Published On: Thu, Apr 18th, 2013

Pentagon to Boost Presence in Jordan

Headquarters Could Oversee Aid Efforts, Officials Say; Syria’s Assad Accuses U.S. of Buoying al Qaeda

By JULIAN E. BARNES and ADAM ENTOUS, Wall Street Journal

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an official photo distributed Wednesday, mark the country's 1946 independence from France.

WASHINGTON—The U.S. will send an Army command team to Jordan to work with Jordanian forces, increasing the number of American forces on the Syrian border, defense officials said.Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told senators Wednesday that he is ordering the deployment of an Army headquarters operation to improve readiness there and “prepare for a number of scenarios.” U.S. defense officials said they weren’t intending the operation—which would increase the U.S. military presence in Jordan to 250 people, from a current 150—to serve as a possible command post for a military intervention.But it could be used to coordinate U.S. humanitarian aid or oversee efforts to secure chemical-weapons sites, officials said. “It is a well-trained, well-coordinated team that can be the nucleus of further mission planning and growth of the command and control element, should that be ordered,” said a defense official.

The announcement came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused the West of backing al Qaeda in his country’s civil war. He also lashed out at Jordan for allowing “thousands” of fighters to enter Syria through its borders, warning that the “fire will not stop at Syria’s border.”

“Just as the West financed al Qaeda in Afghanistan in its beginnings, and later paid a heavy price, today it is supporting it in Syria, Libya and other places and will pay the price later in the heart of Europe and the United States,” Mr. Assad said on government-run Al-Ikhbariya TV, according to the Associated Press, in rare public remarks tied to celebrations of Syria’s independence day.

The Obama administration remains opposed to outright U.S. military intervention in Syria and has also rejected arming Syrian rebels out of fears that weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, including the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist group.

The White House has grown concerned in recent weeks that a rout by rebels could lead to a takeover by Islamic extremists, officials say. The administration is attempting to bolster rebels they consider more moderate, these officials said, with steps that fall short of lethal aid. The administration is preparing to announce new aid for rebels, including body armor and night-vision goggles, U.S. officials have said.

U.S. officials are hoping for a diplomatic solution to keep national institutions in place and safeguard the country’s chemical weapons.

On Wednesday, top defense officials testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the rise of extremist groups among the rebel factions makes military intervention more difficult. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, backed away from his past support for arming rebels, citing the growth of al Qaeda aligned factions in Syria. “I am more concerned than I was before,” he said.

Gen. Dempsey voiced doubts that the U.S. could secure the chemical-weapons sites in the event of a government collapse because of the number of sites and the constant movement of weapons stocks.

Mr. Hagel cautioned against military involvement.

“There will always be a cost,” Mr. Hagel said. “It could be a pretty deep cost.”

Lawmakers, however, stressed the risks of continued inaction.

“The only thing you have argued today is we have to look at the consequences of action,” said committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich). “What we haven’t heard from you…is the consequences of not acting.”

The explanations of the defense leaders frustrated Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has led calls for a more active response to the Syrian crisis. Mr. McCain said that the longer the Obama administration delays, the more dangerous the situation grows.

“Every day that goes by there are more and more of these extremists coming in and making it more and more complicated,” Mr. McCain said.

The headquarters announced Wednesday would largely take the place of an ad hoc special-operations force of about 150 people now in Jordan that has worked on refugee issues and planning. Special-operations forces training Jordanian commandos are expected to remain. The unit, the headquarters of 1st Armored Division from Fort Bliss, Texas, will represent a slight increase in U.S. personnel, to about 250 troops.

A division headquarters typically includes a planning staff along with intelligence and logistics experts.