WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is sending about 200 troops to Jordan, the vanguard of a potential U.S. military force of 20,000 or more that could be deployed if the Obama administration decides to intervene in Syria to secure chemical weapons arsenals or to prevent the 2-year-old civil war from spilling into neighboring nations.
Troops from the 1st Armored Division will establish a small headquarters near Jordan's border with Syria to help deliver humanitarian supplies for a growing flood of refugees and to plan for possible military operations, including a rapid buildup of American forces if the White House decides intervention is necessary, senior U.S. officials said.
Although the Pentagon has sent Patriot missile batteries to Turkey and several dozen U.S. troops already are in Jordan to assist with aid flights and other operations, the move marks the first deployment that Pentagon officials explicitly described as a possible step toward direct military involvement in Syria.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who disclosed the deployment Wednesday in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, made it clear that he and President Barack Obama remained deeply wary of intervening in Syria just as U.S. forces are trying to withdraw from 12 years of war in Afghanistan.
But U.S. officials say they have stepped up preparations because the Syrian civil war shows few signs of abating, and a political settlement that includes the departure of President Bashar Assad appears increasingly unlikely.
"Military intervention is always an option, but it should be an option of last resort," Hagel said. He said that a major deployment could "embroil the U.S. in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment."
Forces loyal to Assad hold power in Damascus, the Syrian capital, and control large parts of other major cities. Rebel militias have made gains near the Turkish border in the north and in southern Dara province near Jordan.
Assad's forces are increasingly relying on air power and artillery to hold back the rebels, although reports from Syria in the last week suggest they may have been able to retake some territory in ground fighting in several areas.