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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Syria: the elephant in the room amid military exercise in Jordan

Editor's Note: Barbara Starr is in Amman, Jordan covering the Eager Lion 2012 exercise. Watch for her stories on CNN next week. By Barbara Starr With a photo of a raging lion over their shoulders, senior U.S. and Jordanian generals opened a massive military exercise dubbed "Eager Lion." The kickoff came with adamant statements that the 12,000 troops from 19 countries now in Jordan were here only for the training - and it all has nothing to do with the violence now raging across Jordan's northern border inside Syria. Recommended: U.S. in waiting game on Syria But it is hard to avoid. Even the exercise name has raised suspicions. In Arabic, the word for lion is asad. But the name has nothing to do with the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, say Maj. Gen. Awni Ad Adwan, head of Jordanian military operations and training, and Maj. Gen. Kenneth Tovo, head of U.S. Central Command's special operations force. Technically, everyone is correct. The name of the exercise was chosen two years ago, the timing of it set nearly three years ago. Officially, the exercise is about 19 nations training together and, as with all U.S. military training exercises, the threat the troops are practicing to fend off is unnamed. But there is the technical answer and then there is reality. Syria looms large here. Publicly, officials are adamant that Jordan's neighbor to the north is not the issue or the reason for the military gathering. It is a very sensitive topic and, after two days on the ground, an unavoidable topic with pretty much every Jordanian and U.S. official I've talked to. Jordan's leaders are seriously concerned about what al-Assad might do, and what that means for Jordan's security. So merely having this exercise go forward, many here believe, sends a message to Assad that Jordan will be defended and helped - or so the Jordanians hope. U.S. and Jordanian special operations forces in particular are training for several days on key assault and commando operations, fine-tuning skills learned over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Marines conduct assault operations in southern Jordan, which is as far from Syria as they can be. But what is the threat from Syria? First, there are tens of thousands of Palestinians in Syria, many near the Jordanian border. If Assad feels vulnerable, he could open up the border and force them south into Jordan, which then would face economic and political hardship from yet more refugees. This would be after years of Jordan's taking in Iraqi and Palestinian refugees under great financial strain. Syrian forces have already fired at refugees fleeing across border checkpoints in Jordan. The nightmare scenario for everyone is al-Assad's weapons of mass destruction. What if those weapons, currently deemed secure, were to slip away from state control and be smuggled into Jordan for a potential terrorist attack? Two tasks the troops of Eager Lion will practice are dealing with a flow of displaced persons and responding to a chemical incident, though the latter exercise will use a scenario involving an industrial accident. Still, it helps explain, as foreign troops move around this country and U.S. Marines fly their combat-proven V-22 tilt rotor aircraft near Jordan's capital city, why everyone knows there just might be a bit of reality in this training exercise against no specific enemy. Think of it as just in case.

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