AMMAN, Jordan – A U.S. army commander said Tuesday that a joint military drill that has brought together forces from 19 countries in Jordan is not meant as a threat to neighboring Syria or its leader, Bashar Assad.
Syrian newspapers have lashed out at the ongoing "Exercise Eager Lion 12," claiming it was named after the Arabic surname of the Syrian president as a message to him that foreign forces are at his doorstep. Assad is lion in Arabic.
The Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests calling for change, has turned into an increasingly militarized conflict. The U.N. estimates the violence has killed more than 9,000 people. World powers have backed a peace plan that was put forward by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, but the bloodshed has not stopped.
The May 7-28 drill in Jordan focuses on training Jordanian and Saudi servicemen in the treatment of refugees, anti-terrorism tactics and naval interception of smuggling vessels, according to Maj. Gen. Ken Tovo, a U.S. commanding general of special operations.
Jordan has so far taken in 110,000 Syrian refugees who fled the conflict at home.
Tovo told a news conference in the capital Amman that the mock war games were "not connected to any real-world event."
"The message that I want to send from this exercise is that we have developed great partners throughout the region and really from across the world that have the same interest and that is ensuring that we have the ability to operate together when called upon by our nation's leadership to meet challenges that are common to our nations," Tovo said.
The exercise includes more than 11,000 service members from the Middle East — excluding Israel and Iran — and from the United States, as well as from Europe, Australia, Pakistan and Brunei.
Maj. Gen. Awni Edwan, chief of staff for training operations in the Jordanian army, said the drill would take place in southern Jordan and that no troops will come near the Syrian border in the north.
"This exercise does not target anyone, none of the neighboring or world countries," Edwan said, adding that preparations and the selection of the name of the exercise began two years ago — long before last year's Arab Spring revolutions that also inspired the Syrian uprising.