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US war games send signal to Assad

Posted: June 19, 2013 6:00 a.m.
Updated: June 19, 2013 6:00 a.m.
 

ZARQA, Jordan (AP) — Under the watchful eye of stern-faced American advisers, hundreds of U.S.-trained Jordanian commandos fanned across this dusty desert plain, holding war games that could eventually form the basis of an assault in Syria.

With the recent deployment of Patriot missiles near the Syrian border, and the mock Syrian accents of those playing the enemy, the message was clear: There is fear of spillover from the Syrian war in this U.S.-allied kingdom, and the potential for a Jordanian role in securing Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles should Bashar Assad's regime lose control.

Dubbed Eager Lion, the 12-day exercise involves combined land, air and sea maneuvers across the country. It brings together 8,000 personnel from 19 Arab and European nations to train on border security, irregular warfare, terrorism and counterinsurgency.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Duke Shienle said Syria "is a concern that all our regional partners share."

The Syrian crisis is "causing all military in the region to increase intensity," he said as he supervised masked commandos in black uniforms from Jordan and two other Syria neighbors — Iraq and Lebanon — in a mock exercise to free a hijacked aircraft on an airstrip in the eastern Jordanian desert.

Nearby, U.S. military strategists taught Jordanian riot police to quickly contain a mock protest by angry mobs in a crowded refugee camp. The trainers refused to name the camp, but the trainees said it was "Zaatari," a reference to a refugee settlement straddling the border with Syria that shelters around 185,000 displaced Syrians.

"We want freedom! We want a free Syria!" the trainees shouted, speaking the Syrian dialect as they depicted Syrian refugees. Others looked on from under dusty tents pitched on a strip of desert outside a Jordanian army compound. The location of this exercise and others could not be disclosed in line with Jordanian army regulations.

Elsewhere, in the south, hundreds of masked Jordanian commandos in black uniforms used machine-guns, rocket propellers and tanks to overwhelm an enemy target as Jordanian helicopters and fighter jets — all part of previous American donations — buzzed the skies overhead.

"We want to tell anyone with malicious intentions toward Jordan that we can hit back where it hurts most painfully," said one Jordanian commando, speaking under scorching sun in the arid mountain region. He could not be named under army regulations and declined to say if the enemy he was fighting was Assad's army.

Other training focused on humanitarian relief and crisis management and involves 7,000 civilians from non-governmental organizations engaged in providing assistance to Syrian refugees, said Tawfiq Hennawi of the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the participating NGOs.

Jordan hosts more than half a million Syrians who fled Assad's military onslaught and that number is expected to rise to 1.2 million by the end of the year.

"These exercises bolster our defense capabilities," said Jordanian army Maj. Gen. Awni Edwan, adding that the Eager Lion exercises, which end Thursday, are routine, having being held twice before at the same time.

"We don't intend to attack anybody," he said.

Jordan has been leery that Assad may eventually use his chemical weapons against his neighbors, or if his regime starts to collapse, his stockpile may fall into the hands of al-Qaida or other militants who are trying to rise to power in Syria.

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