Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Wednesday that he has ordered the deployment of U.S. troops to work with Jordan’s military to “improve readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios” related to Syria. The Army will send up to 200 personnel, including intelligence and communications specialists, from the headquarters of the 1st Armored Division, based at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Although initially tasked with playing a support role in assisting Jordan in developing contingency plans for mitigating the destabilizing spillover effects of Syria’s civil war, the troops could “potentially form a joint task force for military operations, if ordered.” The headquarters staff will lay the foundation for a formal U.S. military presence that could grow to 20,000 troops or more, if the Obama Administration activates contingency plans for a major U.S. military intervention.
The new deployment will supplement the approximately 150 Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel who have been working on an ad hoc basis with CIA and Jordanian trainers to bolster the military and organizational effectiveness of Syria’s disjointed opposition forces. Jordan and the U.S. share an interest in strengthening non-Islamist forces against Islamist extremists who have played a growing role within Syria’s opposition coalition.
The new military deployment will boost U.S. capabilities for monitoring, conducting contingency planning, and possibly taking action to address the threat posed by Syria’s huge chemical weapons arsenal. If Bashar al-Assad’s regime collapses, then U.S. troops could cooperate with Jordanian and Syrian opposition forces to capture or destroy the regime’s chemical weapons before they fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other terrorist groups operating in Syria.
President Obama has repeatedly warned al-Assad against using chemical weapons. But Defense Secretary Hagel made it clear in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that a U.S. military intervention was something to be avoided, if possible: “It should be an option, but an option of last resort.”
The deployment of the headquarters of the 1st Armored Division is a prudent move to support Jordan, an important ally. But Washington should think long and hard before launching a military intervention inside Syria.