The United States will send a Patriot missile battery and F-16 fighters to Jordan for a military drill and may keep the weapons there to counter the threat posed by Syria’s civil war, officials said Monday.
The Patriot missile launchers and F-16 warplanes “were approved for deployment to Jordan as part of Exercise Eager Lion,” said Lieutenant Colonel T.G. Taylor, spokesman for US Central Command based in Tampa, Florida.
“In order to enhance the defensive posture and capacity of Jordan, some of these assets may remain beyond the exercise at the request of the Government of Jordan,” Taylor said in a statement.
US officials declined to say how many F-16 fighter jets would be taking part in the joint exercise or how many aircraft might stay in Jordan afterwards.
The United States backed a similar move earlier this year in Turkey, with the NATO alliance deploying Patriot missile batteries along Turkey’s volatile border with Syria.
The deployment of a Patriot anti-missile battery comes after warnings from Washington to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against shipping advanced missiles to militants in Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite group, which is now openly taking part in the war in support of Damascus.
Israel has carried out air strikes in Syria in a bid to disrupt the possible delivery of missiles to the Hezbollah movement.
The decision to possibly station F-16s and missile batteries in Jordan will fuel speculation on a potential US military intervention, which the White House so far has described as a remote possibility.
“Given our strong alliance with Jordan and in light of circumstances in the region and escalating violence along Jordan’s borders, if requested some (weapons) may remain beyond the conclusion of the exercise to assist the Jordanian armed forces,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
“But no decision has been made yet on that,” she told reporters.
Jordan has hosted two previous “Eager Lion” exercises, involving more than 19 countries, including the United States.
The US Patriot batteries are designed to shoot down Scud or other short-range missiles, known to be in the Assad regime’s arsenal, and could also be employed as part of a no-fly-zone or other air operation.
The Pentagon already has sent about 200 troops to Jordan, including an element of a US Army headquarters, to help the country prepare for possible military action in Syria, including scenarios to secure the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Fighting raged Monday in Syria, with regime aircraft pounding the embattled town of Qusayr near the border with Lebanon, in a three-week-old offensive backed by Hezbollah forces.