AMMAN, Jordan — A meeting of top military officials from 10 regional and Western nations, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrapped up Tuesday as the Obama administration appeared to be preparing for military action in Syria amid claims that government forces used banned chemical weapons.
Jordan’s semi-official Petra news agency said the conference was held at the invitation of Jordan’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Mishaal Zaben, and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command.
Jordanian officials and foreign diplomats refused to comment on the meeting, beyond saying it was focused on the escalating crisis in Syria and aimed at coordinating security responses across the region. The State Department said it was not related to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
“The exchange is designed to increase the collective understanding of the impact of regional conflicts on nations, foster ongoing dialogue and improve security relationships,” said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Jordanian officials and diplomats stressed that the meeting, which also brought together top military officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Canada, was not called in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 near Damascus in which several hundred people reportedly perished.
A former top Jordanian politician, who remains close to this country’s political establishment, said the military leaders were looking at ways to help Jordan and prevent a spillover of Syria’s civil war into neighboring nations, which have already taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. It was also meant to plan for an influx of even more displaced Syrians “if events take a turn for the worse,” said the official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm, noted that among those taking part in the two-day conference in Amman were Turkey, Jordan and Britain — from its bases in Cyprus — which would be among the most relevant countries in the event of a possible military response against Syria.
“Given that Turkey and Jordan are particularly vulnerable to retaliation from Iran and Syria, the diplomacy surrounding their participation will be critical,” said a Stratfor report on Tuesday.
Although Damascus has vehemently denied its forces used chemical weapons in the attack, France and Britain have been equally adamant in claiming that all the evidence pointed to Syrian forces’ culpability.
U.N. investigators, who on Monday gained access to the victims and to affected areas on the eastern edge of Damascus, have not yet determined the nature of the weapons used in the attack.
Until now, the Obama administration has been reluctant to get involved in the Syrian conflict or to lend its full backing to armed opposition groups fighting the government due to concerns over the Islamist nature of some of the most effective insurgent contingents. In addition, deep splits within the opposition alliance have not inspired confidence in its ability to govern Syria.
But with momentum for military action building, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Damascus on Monday that mounting evidence indicated its forces had launched the chemical attack, saying it “goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself” and would not be allowed to pass “without consequences.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday in conversations with his French and British counterparts said the U.S. is committed to “working with the international community to respond to the outrageous chemical attacks,” and that “the United States military is prepared for any contingency involving Syria,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said in a statement.
In an interview with BBC television, Hagel said the U.S. military was prepared to strike Syria at once if President Barack Obama gives the order.
“We are ready to go,” Hagel said, adding that “to me it’s clearer and clearer” that the Syrian regime was responsible, but that the administration was waiting for intelligence agencies to make that determination.
Four U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — and possibly a nuclear-powered submarine — were being moved into cruise missile range of Syrian targets.
The Jordanian military, numbering about 120,000 troops, has been redeploying a large part of its combat units to the northern border with Syria to prevent a spillover of the fighting. Jordanian officials say about 560,000 Syrians have already fled across the frontier.
Although the international community — including the United States as Jordan’s largest foreign aid donor — has picked up much of the tab for caring for the refugees, Western governments fear that the mass influx could destabilize Jordan, a resource-poor kingdom seen as a key U.S. ally in the region.
The United States is believed to have about 1,000 troops based in Jordan, including a headquarters unit, an F-16 fighter detachment at Mafraq air base, as well as Patriot anti-missiles at two sites in the kingdom. These were left in place after taking part in a massive international military exercise in Jordan in June.
In addition, the USS Kearsarge, a Marine amphibious assault ship, is reported to be steaming near Jordan’s only port of Aqaba.