As the United States prepares to supply Syrian rebels with small arms through a CIA-run program, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Saturday that U.S. troops temporarily in neighboring Jordan will leave behind fighter jets and a cache of Patriot missiles.
So far the White House has committed only to supplying rebel forces with small arms and ammunition, following confirmation that the regime of Syria President Bashar al-Assad's has been using chemical weapons in the 2-year-long civil war in which at least 90,000 people have been killed.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and other Capitol Hill military hawks have called for much heavier arms including the Patriot defense missiles and for the United States to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria.
However, the Pentagon made clear Saturday the detachment of missiles and F-16s was brought to Jordan as part an annual, multi-nation military exercise called Eager Lion and will remain there only at the request of the country leaders, when the exercise ends next week.
The White House announced the decision to aid the Syrian opposition Thursday. President Obama vowed last summer to take action should the Assad regime cross a “red line” by using chemical weapons, but has been challenged in verifying whether Assad's forces used chemical weapons and in determining which rebel forces can be trusted.
Critics of the plan say it might be too little, too late as Assad's forces appear to be taking control of the war.
The White House has still not decided whether to send anti-tank weapons, while the CIA prepares to arm and train the rebels, as confirmed Saturday by Fox News.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday explained the president’s decision to go beyond supplying humanitarian aid.
He told Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari that the use of chemical weapons, the militant group Hezbollah’s increasing support of Assad forces as well as the regime’s threats and lack of commitment to negotiate “put a political settlement out of reach,” according to the State Department.
The United States also has roughly 5,000 troops in Jordan. But they will leave at the end of the military exercise. And the arming of the Syrian rebels will happen in Turkey, another bordering county, military sources say.
Russia, which backs Assad, is questioning the White House’s evidence about chemical weapons, including the use of the nerve gas sarin and says the reports do not meet stringent criteria for reliability. Russian officials also opposed the call by McCain and others for a no-fly zone over Syria.
In fighting Saturday, Assad forces captured a suburb of Damascus near the capital's international airport, according to SANA, Syria's state news agency.
SANA says troops killed several rebels and destroyed their hideouts in the Ahmadiyeh area on Saturday, two days after a mortar round landed near the airport's runway and briefly disrupted flights.
A local rebel commander who identified himself by his nickname, Abu Hareth, for fear of government reprisals, said soldiers and rebels have been fighting sporadically in the area since late Friday. He said two rebel fighters have been killed there since.
Ahmadiyeh is part of a region known as Eastern Ghouta, where government forces have been on the offensive for weeks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.