Washington - In a sign of deepening U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis, the United States is leaving 700 combat-equipped American military personnel in Jordan following the end of a joint U.S.-Jordanian training exercise, President Barack Obama told Congress Friday.
The decision brings to about 1,000 the number of U.S. troops now deployed in Jordan. It came a week after the White House announced that the United States would begin providing light arms to Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Obama said the troops would remain in Jordan to help provide that country with security, but he did not say specifically what they would be doing.
"The detachment will remain in Jordan, in full coordination with the government of Jordan, until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed," Obama wrote. "The deployment of this detachment has been directed in furtherance of U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, including the important national interests in supporting the security of Jordan and promoting regional stability."
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan in recent months to escape the fighting in their homeland. But, unlike Syrian neighbors Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, there has been no spillover of violence into the kingdom.
Rebels told McClatchy in December, however, that they had undergone training in light and heavy weapons use inside Jordan at camps they believed were overseen by American and British intelligence agents.
The 700 U.S. personnel that Obama said would remain in Jordan had been participating in military exercises dubbed Eager Lion. Those exercises ended on Thursday.
The Americans include the crews of two Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries and the logistics, command and communications personnel needed to support those units. The United States also is leaving behind a squadron of 12 to 24 F-16 fighter jets that Jordan asked the United States to keep in the kingdom, Obama said in his letter to Congress.
There already were some 300 U.S. troops in Jordan whose official mission is advising the government and training Jordanian forces confronting the fallout of the brutal 2-year-old Syrian civil war, which has driven an estimated 560,000 refugees into the tiny kingdom, a key U.S. ally in the region, severely straining its finances and stability.
Obama's decision to boost the number of U.S. forces follows the White House announcement last week that the U.S. will begin arming Syrian rebels following confirmation that Assad's forces have used small amounts of a nerve agent known as sarin. The CIA is expected to oversee the weapons supplies from Jordan and Turkey.
While the administration publicly declared the regime's alleged use of sarin the reason for arming the rebels, it was widely seen as a belated attempt by Obama to bolster the opposition following the recapture earlier this month of the western city of Qusayr by regime forces and fighters of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia movement from neighboring Lebanon.
The loss of Qusayr, other battlefield setbacks and the inability of a political opposition coalition to agree on leaders and a platform, dealt major blows to the badly fractured Syrian resistance and its foreign backers, including the United States and the Sunni Muslim-dominated states of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan.
Elizabeth O'Bagy, a Syria analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, a policy institute in Washington, said that Obama's decision to keep the F-16s and Patriot batteries in Jordan is aimed at fulfilling a pledge to help Jordan that the president gave to Jordanian King Abdullah during a White House meeting in April. It also is intended to step up pressure on the regime ahead of a peace conference that the United States and Russia are trying to organize, she said.
Abdullah, she said, pressed Obama to set up a U.S. military-enforced "safe zone" on the Syrian side of the border with Jordan where refugees could find shelter and security, but the idea was rejected by Obama, who has sought to limit U.S. involvement in the war that has claimed an estimated 96,000 lives.
"The Jordanians came dead set on pushing the Americans to create a safe zone. They didn't get it, but they left with some reassurances and I think the troops are part of that," said O'Bagy, who recently returned from a research trip to rebel-controlled areas of Syria. "But this is also partly a message to the regime. The United States is trying to do everything it can to the regime before negotiations are finalized."
Hannah Allam of the Washington Bureau contributed.