In recent weeks, the Pentagon has finalized its assessment of what types of units would be needed, how many troops, and even the cost of certain potential operations, officials tell CNN.
The planning comes as the U.S. has become increasingly concerned that the violence in Syria is verging on civil war. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the recent series of bombings have heightened the worry.
Dempsey said it reminded him of the escalating violence during the Iraq war.
The violence “gives us all pause that have been in Iraq and seen how these issues become sectarian and then they become civil wars and then they become very difficult to resolve,” Dempsey told CNN in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
A senior U.S. official said the developments have been a matter of discussion in the Obama administration.
“There is a sense that if the sectarian violence in Syria grows, it could be worse than what we saw in Iraq,” the official said.
The military planning includes a scenario for a no-fly zone as well as protecting chemical and biological sites. Officials say all the scenarios would be difficult to enact and involve large numbers of U.S. troops and extended operations.
The planning, officials insist, is being done protectively and there have been no orders for any action from the White House.
The U.S. Navy is maintaining a presence of three surface combatants and a submarine in the eastern Mediterranean to conduct electronic surveillance and reconnaissance on the Syrian regime, a senior Pentagon official said. The official emphasized that the U.S. routinely maintains this type of naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, but acknowledged the current focus is on Syria.
The United States, Britain and France have all been discussing contingency scenarios, potential training and sharing of intelligence about what is happening in Syria with neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey and Israel. But it is Jordan, so far, that is most seeking the help because of its relatively small military and potential need for outside help if unrest in southern Syria were to impact Jordan’s security.
U.S. special forces are training and advising Jordanian troops on a range of specific military tasks they might need to undertake if unrest in Syria spills over into Jordan or poses a threat to that country, three Defense Department officials told CNN. The officials declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the training. Jordanian officials also are refusing to publicly confirm details, but a senior Middle Eastern government official also confirmed details to CNN.
The U.S. has been training in Jordan using mainly special operations forces under a program called Joint Combined Exchange Training, which sends troops overseas to train foreign soldiers and units in specific missions. Jordan’s major security concern is that if the Syrian regime were to suddenly collapse, then it would face unrest on its northern border, as well as the possibility of large refugee flows, weapons smuggling into Jordan, and potential disarray in Syria’s chemical and biological weapons complex. Jordan also is considering how and where to potentially set up humanitarian assistance bases inside its borders, another matter the U.S. is advising it on.
The Jordanians do not believe regime of Bashir al-Assad would attack them. But they have made it clear to the United States they want the training so they are ready to move quickly if any scenario develops that could destabilize their country, which is already reeling politically from a collapsing economy. While there’s no formal agreement, one of the U.S. officials said the U.S. would come to the defense and support of Jordan in the event any of the Syria scenarios pose a challenge.
While there is no current scenario for putting U.S. troops on the ground in Jordan or Syria, the U.S. could wind up providing air support to move Jordanian troops to the border. In addition, American forces could provide a wide range of intelligence and surveillance capabilities to Jordan so they would have up-to-date information on what is happening on the Syrian side of their border region. In one of the most extreme scenarios, a small unit of Jordanian troops could move into Syria to protect a chemical or biological weapons site.
U.S. satellites are monitoring the chemical and biological weapons sites around the clock, and so far “there is no reason to believe they are not secure,” one of the U.S. officials said.
The U.S. believes the facilities are guarded by some of the most elite Alawite troops loyal to al-Assad. But the official noted that the opposition forces appear to be gaining strength in some areas, and that the United States, Jordan and the allies are concerned that as the amount of al-Assad controlled territory shrinks, some of those critical facilities could be open to attacks, pilfering or efforts by terrorist groups to buy material.
“This is getting a fair amount of attention,” another U.S. official told CNN. Also discussed with Jordanian forces was the possible need for U.S. chemical and biological weapons detecting equipment, the official said.
The overall assessment by the U.S. is that in the event some action had to be taken to secure Syrian chemical, biological or weapons facilities, troops from some country would have to enter Syria in a matter of hours.
This latest training is said to be separate from the recent multinational “Eager Lion 2012” training exercise that took place in Jordan.
During that exercise, U.S. and Jordanian troops also practiced many of the same scenarios, but the JCET training is much more focused, according to the officials.