AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The U.S. will send anti-missile batteries and fighter jets to Jordan at the kingdom's request to boost defense capabilities in the face of an attack from neighboring Syria, Jordanian officials said Wednesday.
The equipment is being sent to Jordan as part of preparations for an annual joint military exercise, but the officials said some would be kept in the country amid fears that the civil war raging in Syria will spill over the border.
The U.S.-made Patriot batteries are designed to detect and shoot down Scud and other short-range missiles, which are part of Syria's arsenal. They could also be used in enforcing a no-fly-zone, which is backed by Jordan and other neighbors of Syria. A no-fly zone is so far opposed by the U.S. and its allies but is considered in the range of possibilities.
That could fuel speculation about a possible U.S. military offensive, although Washington has repeatedly said that was unlikely of offer more than non-lethal aid. A series of regime successes against the rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad is likely to build pressure on the international community to act.
Two Jordanian security officials involved in the deployment, expected in the coming days, said that Washington is sending one or two Patriot missile batteries to the northern border with Syria and a squadron of 12 to 24 F-16 warplanes as part of the international military maneuver "Eager Lion." They said the batteries had been deployed to a Gulf Arab nation to shield it against attack from Iran, but were being relocated to Jordan as the Syrian crisis intensifies.
They declined to say if the F-16s will be deployed in an air base in northern Jordan or be stationed elsewhere along the 375-kilometer (233-mile) Jordanian-Syrian border.
The security officials said some or all the weapons will remain beyond the 11 day exercise that begins Sunday, but declined to say how long they would stay. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release sensitive military information on troop and weapon deployment.
A Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that Jordan has submitted a request for the Patriots to be kept in Jordan after the exercise concludes, although he did not know whether that included keeping F-16s in the country.
The spokesman, Col. Steve Warren said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has not yet seen the request but is likely to approve it once he has reviewed it because the U.S. wants to do all it can to help Jordan deal with the Syria crisis. Hagel was attending a NATO meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, then flying back to Washington.
"They are a close partner with us. We have a longstanding and a strong relationship with the Jordanians, and we want to do what we can to support their security requirements," Warren said.
Russia, one of Syrian President Bashar Assad's main allies, denounced the decision.
"We have repeatedly stated our stance on this before: foreign weapons are being pumped into an explosive region," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. "We have to repeat that this is happening very close to Syria where the flames are burning of a devastating conflict that Russia and its American partners are trying to stop by proposing to hold an international peace conference as soon as possible."
The Russian news agency Interfax also quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying Wednesday that Russia has no intention to raise the issue of the U.S. plans to place Patriot missile systems in Jordan in the meeting on the preparations for an international conference on Syria scheduled to be held in Geneva on Wednesday.
"We will probably not discuss the supply of Patriot systems with them tomorrow," Gatilov reportedly said.
Jordan is concerned that the Syrian regime may attack neighbors who back the opposition seeking to topple him. Government officials said previously that Jordan had asked Washington for the Patriots several months ago, when Syrian rockets started straying into Jordan and in the wake of several shooting incidents that killed at least 10 Syrian refugees as they crossed into the kingdom in the past 10 months.
In January, NATO deployed Patriot missile batteries along Turkey's 560-mile border with Syria, in response to a formal Turkish request after Syrian artillery shells began straying into Turkey last fall, and especially since one of these claimed the lives of five people on the border.
Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad Momani did not confirm the deployment but said at a news conference that the kingdom "wants these advanced weapons because we think they are important for our military and defense capabilities."
Last month, the United States sent about 200 soldiers from an army headquarters unit to Jordan. At the time, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the servicemen will assist their Jordanian ally in efforts to contain violence along the Syrian border and plan for any operations needed to ensure the safety of chemical weapons in Syria. The dispatch of the 1st Armored Division troops of planners and specialists in intelligence, logistics and operations came as several American Congressmen pressed the Obama administration for even more aggressive steps to end the two-year civil war in Syria.
The U.S. along with allies Britain and France are also training moderate Syrian opposition forces in Jordan.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns in Washington, D.C., and Lolita C. Baldor in Brussels, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.