Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Towards a wider war

In the wake of news that the US has sent a military task force to Jordan, could the region be sliding towards a conflict, asks Bill Van Auken

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed the existence of a US task force that has been sent to Jordan this week after it was first reported in The New York Times. Speaking to the media at the close of a two-day NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels, Panetta said that "we have a group of our forces there [in Jordan] working to help build a headquarters there and to ensure that we make the relationship between the United States and Jordan a strong one, so that we can deal with all the possible consequences of what's happening in Syria."

Panetta also said that the force would be tasked with ensuring the security of the chemical and biological weapons in Syria. US President Barack Obama has previously declared that any use of such weapons would represent a "red line" that would shift US policy towards direct military intervention in Syria. As a result, in Syria, just as in Iraq a decade ago, the alleged threat from "weapons of mass destruction" is being readied as a pretext for a US war of aggression in the region.

The New York Times article revealed that "the idea of establishing a buffer zone between Syria and Jordan, which would be enforced by Jordanian forces on the Syrian side of the border, has been discussed in conjunction with the setting up of the US military outpost, located near the Syrian border." Creating such a zone would be possible only in coordination with a massive US intervention.

According to the report, "the outpost near Amman could play a broader role should American policy change" and Washington decide to launch such an intervention. Jordan's military, meanwhile, flatly denied the US presence. The state-run news agency Petra quoted a spokesman from the country's armed forces as stating that "news reports that the United States is helping Jordan deal with Syrian refugees or face dangers related to chemical weapons are not true. The Jordanian forces are capable of facing any kind of threats."

The spokesman went on to say that any foreign military presence was "to conduct an annual and routine military exercise" and "has nothing to do with any regional issues or developments".

The origins of the previously secret US deployment in Jordan date back to last May, when the Pentagon sent American troops, including Special Forces units, to the country to participate in joint military exercises dubbed Operation Eager Lion. Some 100 military personnel stayed behind and were then joined by dozens more. The task force, according to the New York Times, is commanded by a "senior American officer".

It is headquartered in a Jordanian military base built in an abandoned quarry north of the Jordanian capital Amman. Just 35 miles from the Syrian border, the base is the closest US military deployment to Syria's civil war, in which Washington is backing a collection of Islamist and sectarian militias as a proxy force in a campaign to oust Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and replace him with a more pliant puppet regime.

The military deployment in Jordan parallels the CIA's establishment of a similar command-and-control base near the US Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey, where it is coordinating the arming of the so-called Syrian rebels with weapons and munitions provided by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf Sunni monarchies. The New York Times article suggested that the principal concern of the US military contingent in Jordan has been dealing with the influx of an estimated 180,000 refugees into the country from neighbouring Syria.

"Members of the American task force are spending the bulk of their time working with the Jordanian military on logistics -- figuring out how to deploy tons of food, water and latrines to the border, for example, and training the Jordanian military to handle the refugees," according to the newspaper. The article offered no explanation of why the US military was uniquely suited for providing relief for refugees, having created millions of them over the course of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Jordan's treatment of the refugees from Syria has been so brutal that it has provoked riots. Protests have been put down by heavily armed police at the Zaatari Refugee Camp, set up in the middle of the desert, for example. The unnamed "American officials familiar with the operation" who spoke to the New York Times are thus attempting to provide humanitarian cover for the preparation of a new explosion of US militarism in the region.

Yet, if Washington and the Pentagon are concerned about the refugees flowing into Jordan, it is for their possible use as a pretext for intervention in Syria and for their potential to intensify the political crisis of the Jordanian monarchy, which heads one of the most pliable US client states in the region.

In a report released last week, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the non-partisan research arm of the US Congress, acknowledged that "King Abdullah II [of Jordan] is facing an emboldened opposition that has grown more openly critical in recent years of continued royal rule, particularly as Jordan continues to suffer from high unemployment, high underemployment, and a large fiscal deficit."

"Small scale protests in Jordan have become a regular occurrence, not only in the capital of Amman, but in more rural tribal areas in the south once considered to be a bedrock of support for the government. Though economic grievances remain paramount, concern over high-level corruption and continued restrictions on political freedoms also has generated unrest."

Last Friday saw a demonstration by tens of thousands of people in Amman, with the protesters chanting, "the people want the regime to go" and marching behind banners reading, "down with all unelected governments" and "we prefer to die rather than live a life of humiliation."

As the Jordanian regime faces rising internal opposition, the US has been increasing the aid upon which it depends. According to the CRS report, Washington is providing Jordan with $360 million in economic support funds and over $300 million in military aid during the current fiscal year. Since 1951, the US has poured some $13.1 billion into propping up the Hashemite monarchy's rule over the country.

The recent revelations about the secret military base in Jordan are one more indication of the advanced state of US preparations for a new and more devastating war in the Middle East.

The writer is a member of the World Socialist Movement.

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