On 16 April, it emerged that the US was sending 200 troops to Jordan, to establish a small headquarters near the border with Syria. While these troops will initially be helping to deliver humanitarian supplies for the huge and growing number of refugees, they will also plan for possible military operations. That could mean a rapid expansion of the number of American boots on the ground, if military intervention is deemed necessary. There are already a few US soldiers in Jordan, and America sent missile batteries to Turkey – but this is the first deployment that senior officials have said might lead to military action.
The Syria conflict has stretched on for two years, and cost the lives of more than 70,000 people. Thus far, the international community has been reluctant to intervene. The complexity of the conflict – where a substantial proportion of the population continues to support Bashar al-Assad – and the disparate, splintered nature of the rebels make it difficult to see clear paths of action. Various countries are supplying training and weaponry to the rebels, but all have stopped short of offering direct military assistance. The mess left behind in nearby Libya is a cautionary tale for would-be interveners in Syria. The country – which had a similarly splintered opposition – is in a state of near chaos, although the west's "no-fly zone" was much praised at the time.
Announcing the deployment on 16 April, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressed that neither he nor President Barack Obama are banging the drums for war. "Military intervention is always an option, but it should be an option of last resort," he warned, and added that a major deployment could "embroil the US in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment". Those words are particularly potent as America gears up to withdraw from Afghanistan after 12 years of war.
So why deploy troops at all? According to US officials, these preparations for military intervention have been put in place because of worries about a spill over of violence over Jordan's borders, and about the security of Syria's supply of chemical weapons. Indeed, two years later, there is no sign of the Syrian civil war calming down. All those advocating for a diplomatic solution have agreed on one point – Assad must step down if there is to be any hope of a managed settlement – and that looks increasingly unlikely. In a defiant interview to Syrian state television last week, he said that the west would "pay the price" for what he described as support for Al-Qaeda rebels in Syria. He drew a comparison to the Afghanistan conflict, where the west initially supported the extremist group.
The current conflict is already a serious cause for concern outside Syria's borders. It is a broadly – and increasingly – sectarian war, with Sunni Muslims making up the majority of the opposition, and minorities like the Alawites fighting with Assad. The on-going war is deepening sectarian divides across the Middle East. Meanwhile, western countries are concerned not only about their allies in Jordan and Israel, but about the advance of Islamist groups such as the Nusra Front within the opposition.
In the same interview, Assad accused Jordan of allowing rebels to travel freely across its borders, warning: "The fire will not stop at our border and everybody knows that Jordan is exposed as Syria is." While support for Jordan, a staunch US ally, is one of the aims of the bulked up US operation, the small nation has reiterated its opposition to military action. Refusing to comment on Assad's comments, Jordan's Information Minister Mohammad Momani said: "Our position on the situation in Syria has not changed. We are still against any military intervention in Syria. We urge a political solution to end the bloodshed in Syria." Yet, according to the Australian newspaper, Jordan's prime minister has said that the country could seek UN Security Council protection if necessary in the coming weeks and months.
If Jordan is reticent about further involvement, Israel – America's other ally in the region – is quite the opposite. It has repeatedly asserted its right to invade Syria to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of rebels. It is concerned about the consequences of Assad's regime collapsing.
Ultimately, the situation remains a delicate balancing act. The US is preparing for action, while retaining its reluctance about getting directly involved. On the one hand, Jordan and other Arab countries do not support US military action, and on the other, Israel does. "Once you're in, you can't unwind it," said Hagel. "You can't just say, 'Well, it's not going as well as I thought it would go so we're gonna get out.'" Yet, as with any balancing act, it will take just one wrong move for everything to come crashing down. If it does, it will engulf the whole region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.