U.S. War Planes Participate In Exercises In Jordan
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Syria's Arab neighbors are increasingly being drawn into that country's conflict. Over the weekend, the Egyptian president cut all diplomatic ties with Syria and called for a no-fly zone to protect rebels there.
In Jordan - right next door to Syria - King Abdullah told graduates at the country's military academy that he would defend against any spillover from the fighting. That followed a Pentagon decision to base Patriot missiles and a squadron of F-16 fighter planes in the country.
NPR's Deborah Amos sent this report from Jordan's capital, Amman.
(SOUNDBITE OF JET FIGHTERS)
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: U.S. fighter jets are flying over Jordan's desert - part of a joint military exercise called Eager Lion that ends later this week.
Jerry Murphy, with the Colorado National Guard, makes sure the bombers are ready to go.
JERRY MURPHY: Just taking care of it to make sure when we're ready to fire with it, it's ready to go.
AMOS: So everything here is operational?
MURPHY: Oh, yes.
AMOS: The war games kicked off as Syria's civil war rages next door, and includes drills against missile and chemical attacks, training for humanitarian assistance.
But the American commander, Major General Robert Catalanotti, insists the exercise has nothing to do with Syria.
MAJOR GENERAL ROBERT CATALANOTTI, U.S. ARMY CENTRAL COMMAND: We are not training on any border, whether it be the north, south, west or east.
AMOS: Why is that?
COMMAND: Because this specific exercise is not designed around any adversary country.
AMOS: Diplomats in the kingdom put a different spin on the long-planned exercise - it's a message of U.S. support for a vulnerable ally on Syria's border. Jordan is on the front lines of the conflict. The country has been overwhelmed by more than a half million Syrian refugees, straining every resource in the country. Jordan also serves as a covert transit for weapons and a training camp for some rebel groups vetted by Western intelligence agencies.
As the U.S. now pledges to arm the rebels directly, Jordan wants guarantees of American backing, says Taher Abu Tair, a Jordanian political writer, because many Jordanian believe a wider war is coming.
TAHER ABU TAIR: (Through translator) I believe it's a function of protection for Jordan and for support and to send a threatening message to Syria.
AMOS: The Pentagon decision has fueled Russian fears that the stepped up U.S. presence in Jordan is just preparation for a no-fly zone over Syria - despite strong American denials.
Alexander Kalugin, Russia's ambassador here, dismissed the message of American support and said the military exercises undermine the joint effort to find a political solution in Syria.
ALEXANDER KALUGIN: If you have fire in one place and you bring more fuel to fire instead of water, what can be result?
AMOS: When you talk to the Americans here, they say this exercise has nothing to do with Syria; they say it again and again.
KALUGIN: OK, with what it has anything to do if it's not with Syria?
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
AMOS: In Jordan, many problems have nothing to do with Syria. There are weekly protests here against arbitrary arrests, corruption, and a strained economy.
In the speech on Sunday, King Abdullah vowed to fight threats from Syria - but he gave no details on how he can protect the kingdom, as the country openly moves towards the American policy of arming Syrian rebels against President Bashar al-Assad.
Public opinion here is divided on the Syrian revolt, says journalist Daoud Kuttab, as radical Islamists have taken a larger role.
DAOUD KUTTAB: The Syrian issue has political ramifications because there's a lot of Jordanian support for Assad and the country is divided on the issue of Assad.
AMOS: Now Jordan is banking on U.S. guarantees - a Patriot missile battery, a squadron of fighter jets for protection against a war on Jordan's border that shows no sign of ending any time soon.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Amman, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.