The United States deployed troops to Jordan to help monitor Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons and determine what efforts to take if violence spreads to neighboring nations, the U.S. defense chief said.
The announcement follows recent news that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces moved some of the weapons for security reasons. Reports have emerged that rebels are focusing their efforts on capturing some of the storage sites.
“We continue to be concerned about security at those sites,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Wednesday after a meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels, Belgium.
“We want to ensure that security is maintained and we want to be very sure that those (weapons) do not fall into the wrong hands.”
Roughly 150 U.S. Army special operations soldiers have been working with Jordanian forces to monitor the chemical and biological weapons sites in Syria while trying to determine how to respond should an issue arise, according to the defense chief.
“We have a group of our forces there, working to help them build a headquarters and to ensure that we make the relationship between the United States and Jordan a strong one so we can deal with all of the possible consequences,” Panetta said.
“We’ve also been working with them to try to develop their own military and operational capabilities in the event of any contingency there.”
A senior Jordanian military official denied Panetta’s claims, according to state-run PETRA news agency.
The American troops are in the country for an annual training exercise, the official from the Jordanian armed forces general command told the news agency.
There has been a growing international concern about the fate of the weapons should the civil war escalate or fall into the hands of rebels.
President Barack Obama warned al-Assad and “other players on the ground” — presumably rebels — that any attempt to move or use the chemical and biological weapons would be crossing a “red line” and prompt a swift U.S. military response.
The United States also has been working with Turkey as part of its effort to monitor the weapons sites.
“They are obviously concerned about the (weapons storage) sites as well,” Panetta said. “So we’ve worked with them to do what we can to monitor the situation.”
Syria is believed to have one of the “largest and most advanced chemical warfare program in the Arab world,” said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Turkey’s foreign minister defends search
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu defended the search of an airplane en route from Moscow to Damascus, saying Turkey would not allow weapons for the Syrian government to be transported through its airspace.
“We are resolutely ready to control weapons supplies to the regime, which kills the civilian population,” Davutoglu said Thursday. “We are against having our airspace used for such purpose.”
His comments followed reports that Russia was demanding answers from Turkey. There were 17 Russians aboard the plane, according to state-run Itar-Tass news agency.
Turkey forced the airliner to land Wednesday in Ankara, saying it had received intelligence that the plane was carrying weapons bound for Syria. Turkish officials seized 10 boxes believed to be parts for military communications equipment, according to TRT, an official Turkish news agency.
The plane was allowed to leave for Syria a short time later, TRT reported.
Syria’s transportation minister, Mahoumd Ibrahim Said, described the forced landing as an act of piracy, in a telephone interview with Lebanon’s Hezbollah-run Al Manar TV.
Tensions between Turkey and Syria have boiled over in recent months, with Istanbul accusing Damascus of shelling its border towns where thousands of refugees have fled from the fighting. Turkish forces fired in retaliation and authorized its troops to venture beyond its borders.
Syria and Turkey once enjoyed warm relations that included visa-free travel and robust trade between the countries.
But relations ruptured as al-Assad’s government waged its bloody and unrelenting crackdown on anti-government demonstrators.
Russia, a trade partner of Syria, and China have repeatedly blocked U.N. Security Council efforts to try to end the carnage. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said the conflict must be decided by the Syrian people.
Opposition: Homs under fire
Al-Assad’s forces shelled the flashpoint city of Homs in western Syria early Thursday for a third day, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Government troops and rebels have battled on-and-off for control of the city in the months following the start of the conflict.
At least three government troops were killed and a number of rebels were wounded in the latest reports of fighting, the Syrian Observatory said.
At least 18 people were killed in fighting across Syria on Thursday, including five in Homs, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported.
CNN can’t confirm reports of violence or casualty counts as access to the country by international journalists has been severely restricted.