Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

U.S. Sends Task Force to Jordan ; Syrian Refugees Aided; Chemical Weapons Held by Damascus Are a Worry

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

U.S. Sends Task Force to Jordan ; Syrian Refugees Aided; Chemical Weapons Held by Damascus Are a Worry

Article excerpt

A group of U.S. military advisers is largely focused on helping Jordan handle the estimated 180,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed the border and are severely straining the kingdom's resources.

The U.S. military has secretly sent a task force of about 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the kingdom's armed forces handle a flood of Syrian refugees, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons and be positioned should the turmoil in Syria expand into a wider conflict.

The task force, which has been led by a senior U.S. officer, is based at a Jordanian military training center built into an old rock quarry north of Amman. It is largely focused on helping Jordanians handle the estimated 180,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed the border and are severely straining the country's resources.

U.S. officials familiar with the operation said the mission also includes drawing up plans to try to insulate Jordan, an important American ally in the region, from the upheaval in Syria and to avoid the kind of clashes occurring along the border of Syria and Turkey.

The officials said the idea of establishing a buffer zone between Syria and Jordan -- which would be enforced by Jordanian forces on the Syrian side of the border and supported politically and perhaps logistically by the United States -- had been discussed. But at this point the buffer is only a contingency.

The Obama administration has declined to intervene in the Syrian conflict beyond providing communications equipment and other nonlethal assistance to the rebels opposing the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the outpost near Amman could play a broader role should U.S. policy change. It is about 55 kilometers, or 35 miles, from the Syrian border and is the closest U.S. military presence to the conflict.

Officials from the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, declined to comment on the task force or its mission. A spokesman for the Jordanian Embassy in Washington also would not comment.

As the crisis in Syria has deepened, there has been mounting concern in Washington that the violence could spread through the region.

Over the past week, Syria and Turkey have exchanged artillery and mortar fire across Syria's northern border, which has been a crossing point for rebel fighters.

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.

Jordan has also been touched by the fighting. Recent skirmishes have broken out between the Syrian military and Jordanians guarding their country's northern border, where many families have ties to Syria. …

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