AMMAN — A team of U.S. military planners is in Jordan to help the Amman government grapple with Syrian refugees, bolster its military capabilities and prepare for any trouble with Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday.
|A Syrian passenger plane which was forced to land sits at Esenboga airport in Ankara. REUTERS|
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the team had been in Jordan for several months and was there when Panetta visited King Abdullah in early August. The number of troops in the team has since grown, but there are no specific plans to expand it further, the official said.
"We have been working with Jordan for a period of time now ... on a number of the issues that have developed as a result of what's happened in Syria," Panetta told a news conference in Brussels.
Panetta said those issues included monitoring chemical weapons sites "to determine how best to respond to any concerns in that area."
A second U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the small team of planners was not engaged in covert operations and had been housed at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center, north of the capital, Amman, since the early summer.
While the United States has not intervened militarily in Syria, President Barack Obama has warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that any attempt to deploy or use chemical or biological weapons would cross a "red line" that could provoke U.S. action.
Late last month, Panetta said Syria had moved some of its chemical weapons stocks to better secure them, but stressed that the country's main chemical weapons sites remained intact and secure under government control.
About 294,000 refugees fleeing 18 months of conflict in Syria have already crossed into Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, or await registration there, the U.N. refugee agency estimated late last month.
Forced landing of Syrian plane increases tensions
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday a Syrian passenger plane forced to land in Ankara was carrying Russian-made munitions destined for Syria's armed forces, ratcheting up tension with his country's war-torn neighbor. Damascus said the plane had been carrying legitimate cargo and described Turkey's actions as an act of "air piracy", while Moscow accused Ankara of endangering the lives of Russian passengers when it intercepted the jet late on Wednesday.
The grounding of the plane was another sign of Ankara's growing assertiveness towards the crisis in Syria. Turkey's chief of staff warned on Wednesday the military would use greater force if Syrian shells continued to land in Turkey.
A spokeswoman for Moscow's Vnukovo airport told state news agency Itar-Tass everything put on the plane had cleared customs and security checks and no prohibited items were on board. Syrian Arab Airlines chief Ghaida Abdulatif said in Damascus the plane had been carrying civilian electrical equipment. Turkey has become one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's harshest critics during a 19-month-old uprising that has killed some 30,000 people, providing sanctuary for rebel officers and pushing for a foreign-protected safe zone inside Syria. Russia has stood behind Assad and an arms industry source said Moscow had not stopped its weapons exports to Damascus.
Military jets escorted the Airbus A-320, carrying around 30 passengers, into Ankara airport after Turkey received an intelligence tip-off. The Turkish foreign ministry said the plane had been given a chance to turn back towards Russia while still over the Black Sea, but the pilot chose not to do so.
"This hostile and deplorable Turkish act is an additional indication of the hostile policy of Erdogan's government," Syria's foreign ministry said in a statement, accusing Ankara of "harboring terrorists" and allowing them to infiltrate Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had been expected to visit Turkey next week but Turkish officials said hours before the plane was grounded that his visit would be postponed due to his heavy workload.
The Russian envoy to Turkey visited the country’s Foreign Ministry after Moscow demanded that Ankara explain why it didn't inform them of Russian nationals on the flight, according to RT.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also demanded an explanation for why the passengers were prohibited from leaving the plan for several hours, and were not provided food.
Tensions between Syria and Turkey have escalated after mortar shells were fired across the country’s shared border from Syrian territory last week, killed five civilians in a Turkish town. Turkey responded by deploying troops, armored vehicles and F-16 fighter jets along the volatile border
NATO sources said the Turkish forces were placed on high alert after Wednesday’s incident. This followed Ankara’s orders for the national airlines to avoid entering Syrian airspace.
Turkish media reported that Syria responded by barring Turkish aircraft from its airspace, a charge later denied by the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
Turkey said it would stop more Syrian civilian aircraft using its airspace if necessary and instructed Turkish passenger planes to avoid Syrian airspace, saying it was no longer safe.
The nation has boosted its troop presence along the 560-mile border and returned fire in response to shelling from northern Syria, where Assad's forces have been battling rebels. Chief of Staff General Necdet Ozel said on Wednesday his troops would respond "with greater force" if Syrian shelling continued and parliament last week authorized the deployment of troops outside Turkish territory.
Some 25 fighter planes were sent to a military base in the southern city of Diyarbakir, around 70 miles from the Syrian border, on Monday, the Dogan news agency said.
Syrian refugees fleeing across a river into Turkey spoke of chaos as Syrian government forces battled rebels for control of the area around their home town of Azmarin on Thursday.
Loudspeakers in Azmarin, audible from Hacipasa on the Turkish side, called on rebel fighters to give up. "Give up your weapons. Come and surrender. We are coming with tanks and planes," they said between bursts of mortar fire.
Risks of deeper involvement
Turkey has made clear that beyond like-for-like retaliation it has no appetite for unilateral intervention in Syria. Such a move would be fraught with risks.
Turkey relies on Russia, which has blocked tougher U.N. resolutions against Damascus, both for energy needs and to help realize its ambitions to be a hub for energy supplies to Europe.
Many Turks see Russia as harboring sympathy towards the militant Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has stepped up violence in southeast Turkey in recent months. Turkish officials believe Syria and Iran have also been backing the group.
The establishment of foreign-protected safe zones in Syria would be hazardous, with the exit strategy for foreign forces dependent on the Syrian opposition's ability to topple Assad.
The opposition is deeply divided. Organizers of a Qatar conference aimed at uniting it said on Thursday it had been postponed until they can agree on fair representation for disparate groups.
The Syrian rebels are outgunned by the government but can still strike at will, while Assad has assumed personal command of his forces, convinced he can prevail militarily.
"The earlier Bashar goes, the easier the transition in Syria will be," French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday.
"The longer it lasts, the greater the risk of civil war, chaos and partition. I refuse to accept that."
Meanwhile, rebels attacked a Syrian army base near the main northern highway on Thursday to try to consolidate their control over the supply line to Aleppo, days after capturing a strategic town in the area, opposition activists said. They used at least one tank seized from the army, as well as rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs, to hit the Wadi al-Deif base, slightly east of the town of Maarat al-Nuaman, which they captured this week, they said.
-Reuters, TAAN, RT