WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is sending about 200 soldiers from an Army headquarters unit to Jordan to assist efforts to contain violence along the Syrian border and plan for any operations needed to ensure the safety of chemical weapons in Syria, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress Wednesday.
The decision to dispatch the 1st Armored Division troops of planners and specialists in intelligence, logistics and operations comes as several lawmakers pressed the Obama administration for even more aggressive steps to end the two-year civil war.
Mr. Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, faced persistent questions from senior members of the Armed Services Committee about efforts to force out Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Pentagon leaders made clear that the situation is extremely complicated, and they must be certain of the endgame before any military step to try to end the bloodshed.
"You better be damned sure. No-fly zone, safe zone. Once you're in, you can't unwind it," Mr. Hagel said.
Gen. Dempsey said he has spent a significant portion of his adult life trying to figure out the Mideast. "This is the toughest of all," he said.
Mr. Hagel said the fresh troops will replace a similar number of U.S. forces that have been in Jordan for some months. They also will provide leadership personnel that could command additional forces if it's determined that they are needed in the future.
"Currently, the U.S. forces assisting Jordan now are troops pulled from various units and places," Mr. Hagel said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said sending a unit that has already served together improves its ability to work as a team. The unit is based at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Two years of civil war pitting the forces of Mr. Assad against his foes has killed an estimated 70,000 people, forced more than 1 million refugees to flee their homes and stretched the resources of neighboring nations.
In Jordan, Information Minister Mohammed Momani confirmed that they would receive 200 U.S. troops as it struggles with the Syrian civil war to its north. "They will be here to bolster our training and defense capabilities in light of the deterioration in Syria," Mr. Momani said in an interview. He said dispatching U.S. forces to the kingdom was "coordinated" with the Jordanian government.
Mr. Hagel's announcement comes ahead of his trip next week to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Separately, Secretary of State John Kerry will be traveling to Turkey and Gen. Dempsey will visit China to discuss the situation in Syria.
President Barack Obama has insisted that Mr. Assad must go, but has cautioned about sending military assistance to Syrian opposition forces, which could extend the fighting and unintentionally put weapons in the hands of Islamic extremists. Mr. Obama has made clear that Mr. Assad would cross a red line if he were to use his suspected stockpile of chemical weapons, including nerve agents and mustard gas, against the Syrian people.
Mr. Assad on Wednesday accused the West of backing al-Qaida in his country's civil war, warning that it will pay a price "in the heart" of Europe and the United States, as the terror network becomes emboldened.
The Syrian president also lashed out at Jordan for allowing "thousands" of fighters to enter Syria through its borders and warned that the "fire will not stop at Syria's border."
The rare TV interview with the government-run Al-Ikhbariya channel marking Syria's independence day comes as the embattled president's military is fighting to reverse rebel advances, with a rocket attack killing at least 12 people in a central village Wednesday.
"Just as the West financed al-Qaida 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. He offered no evidence to back his charge that the United States was now backing the international terror group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Extremist groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra are gaining ground in Syria's two-year civil war. Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, has emerged as the most effective force among the mosaic of rebel units fighting to topple Assad. Last week, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Gonali pledged allegiance to al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Washington has designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization over its links with al-Qaida. The Obama administration opposes directly arming Syrian opposition fighters, in part out of fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists such as the Nusra Front. Earlier this year, the U.S. announced a $60 million non-lethal assistance package for Syria that includes meals and medical supplies for the armed opposition.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently sent a letter to Mr. Obama, calling for him to consider a safe zone inside Syria along the border with Turkey and deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries closer to the border. Mr. McCain has repeatedly called for arming the rebels and imposing a no-fly zone.
Gen. Dempsey was asked Wednesday by Mr. McCain whether he is confident that U.S. forces could secure the chemical weapons caches within Syria. "Not as I sit here today, simply because they've been moving it, and the number of sites is quite numerous," the Joint Chiefs chairman replied.