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Western troops in place to protect Jordan from Syrian spillover

Higher number of troops than announced includes special forces


by Adam Nicky, The Media Line

October 15, 2012 | 9:30 am

Syrian refugees at Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan on Sept. 3. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Hyams/Save the Children

Syrian refugees at Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan on Sept. 3. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Hyams/Save the Children

Ahmed Thiabat sits on his balcony in Jordan overlooking the Syrian town of Tal Shehab just over the Syrian border. This once tranquil farmland has become a battleground for troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and rebels fighting to unseat him.

Thiabat, a farmer and father of five, hears gunshots daily. He says he can’t sleep at night since several mortar shells fell in fields near his home.

"This area was a true paradise -- green all year ‘round,” he told The Media Line. “Now, the sounds of birds are being replaced by gunshots and soldiers are becoming a permanent fixture of the scenery," he said.

An estimated 210,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan since the fighting began and the number is expected to climb to 250,000 by year’s end. Jordanian officials say they plan to open a second refugee camp in order to accommodate the growing number fleeing Syria.

<div style="float:right;padding-left:15px;padding-top:10px;padding-bottom:10px;"><div style="border: 1px solid black;padding:7px;" ><a href="http://www.themedialine.org" target="_blank"><img src="http://www.jewishjournal.com/images/themedialine-160-7-11.jpg" /></a></div></div>US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said this week that the United States has sent soldiers to Jordan to help with relief efforts for the refugees. He did not give a number, but last week the New York Times reported that there were 150 soldiers in Jordan, including communications specialists, logistics experts, planners, trainers and headquarters staff.

Diplomats and military sources tell The Media Line that the number is actually much higher. They say that troops, including intelligence officers, are coming from France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as from the US and the United Kingdom.

"Hundreds of French troops are doing their work in the northern city of Mafraq, let alone the assistance from the Gulf" said a western diplomat.

Jordanian sources close to the army confirmed to The Media Line that more than 1,500 American soldiers from elite units including the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC); the 75th Ranger Regiment (Airborne), also known as Rangers; and Navy Seals are present in the kingdom.

"The US troops have been moving across Jordan's northern border for several months now, making security assessments, helping screen refugees, and monitoring the border," said the western diplomat.

He said the timing of the announcement now is partly connected to the US election campaign.

"The Syrian government knows about these troops, but the American public needed to know that (American president Barack) Obama has not abandoned his role in the region," said the diplomat.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney has charged that that the present US administration is losing interest in the vital Middle East region.

The international involvement in Jordan began in May, when some 1,200 Arab soldiers from the Gulf States held an exercise simulating a response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack on the refugees in Jordan.

An Arab diplomat said that Saudi Arabia deployed dozens of tanks while Qatar and Bahrain provided other military hardware.

"The Gulf countries decided to use Jordan as its first defense shield against any spillover of violence from Syria," the diplomat told The Media Line.

After initially denying their existence in its territories, the Jordanian government admitted there were, indeed, American forces on its soil.

"The US troops in Jordan is part of the exchanging of visits between the Jordanian and US armies; part of increased cooperation; and to improve the capabilities of both sides to ensure regional stability," government spokesman Sameeh Mayta was quoted by the official Jordanian news agency, Petra.

Jordan enjoys strong relations with Washington, particularly in the military and intelligence fields, and its army receives at least one-half billion dollars each year from the United States in military assistance.

Back on the border, Ahmed Thiabat says he has noticed dozens of “Western-looking troops” near his home. He says he is certain that Jordan, with the help of those soldiers, will be able to contain any spillover of violence from Syria.

"People talk about American or British forces giving assistance to our army. We are happy to see the world is trying to protect us." he said.

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