A small number of American troops are on the ground in Jordan, next door to Syria. The troops could be called on to perform critical missions in response to the fighting inside Syria. Possible missions include providing humanitarian relief and helping to secure Syria's chemical weapons.
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Robert Siegel. More than 100 American troops are in Jordan, keeping an eye on the civil war in neighboring Syria. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the Americans could help provide humanitarian relief to refugees fleeing Syria. And they're making contingency plans in case Syrian chemical and biological weapons fall into the wrong hands. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is here with me. And Tom, how long have the U.S. military personnel been in Jordan?
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Robert, they've been there since the spring, and it's a small contingent, as The New York Times reported this morning; roughly 150 or so troops. But it's important to note, these aren't combat troops - trigger-pullers, as we would say. These are military planners.
SIEGEL: Is their presence, though, a signal that the U.S. military could get directly involved in the Syrian conflict?
BOWMAN: No, there's no indication of that right yet. Everyone I've talked with, in the military, talks about how difficult a situation this is. The Syrians have a first-rate air-defense system, a lot of weapons in a - really, a tough terrain; not like you had in Libya. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, spoke about Syria today. Let's listen to what he had to say.
GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: We continue to plan for a number of contingencies. We're prepared to provide options, if those options are required. But the military instrument of power, at this point, is not the prominent instrument of power that should be applied in Syria.
BOWMAN: So that's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talking about options; but no indication, at this point, of sending in U.S. troops or creating safe zones, no-fly zones, or even sending in more weapons to the rebels. They're worried that heavier weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists.
SIEGEL: Well, so much for what they're not doing. What are the U.S. military personnel actually doing in Jordan?
BOWMAN: Well, part of this is humanitarian relief. More than 200,000 refugees have fled Syria into Jordan, so these planners are talking about what they can do for more food and shelter. So you may see more U.S. assistance, in the coming weeks. And they're also talking with the Jordanians about how you would set up a buffer zone, in case this flow of refugees becomes unmanageable. They could talk about setting up checkpoints, patrol zones - both by air and land - and also, make sure that no insurgents are crossing the border into Jordan.
SIEGEL: And what might they do about the possibility of the Syrian chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands?
BOWMAN: That is the most serious concern of the U.S. military. Syrians have a huge amount of chemical agents; hundreds - if not thousands - of tons of mustard and nerve gas. That, again, could fall into the hands of terrorists, or Syria could use them against the rebels. Some of the clouds could, you know, sweep across the border, into Jordan. So a lot of these planners are talking with the Jordanians about, how do you secure these chemical weapons, if you have to? They may have to go right in and actually grab these sites. There's talk about maybe bombing the sites; but that creates its own problems, with the clouds going across into civilian areas. Syrians have also moved some of these chemical weapons, which is a great concern to the U.S. military. But they're not sure if they're just safe - these are safe-keeping moves, or if they're going to use them against the rebels.
SIEGEL: Tom, is there any indication - either from Gen. or Secretary Panetta - as to how long this small American force might stay in Jordan?
BOWMAN: You know, there's no indication of that, at all. Again, they've been there since the spring. We expect this to go on a lot longer. Assad is still pretty strong. The rebels haven't gained the edge yet. And as one general said to me, this is going to get worse before it gets better.
SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.