By DoD News
By Cheryl Pellerin
The Defense Department is working with Jordan and Turkey to help with collateral humanitarian and security issues affecting them because of the brutal war that continues in Syria, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said here today.
During a news conference held at the close of a NATO defense ministers meeting, Panetta described U.S. efforts in the Syrian border countries of Jordan and Turkey, where the numbers of Syrians fleeing to Turkey have spiked because of recent fighting in Aleppo.
Together the nations harbor tens of thousands of the more than 200,000 refugees from the violence and death produced since March 2011 by the clash between opposition fighters and the regime of Bashar Assad.
“We have been working with Jordan for a period of time now on a number of the issues that have developed as a result of what’s happening in Syria,” Panetta said.
One of the main issues is humanitarian relief, the secretary added, and the United States is doing what it can to help both countries respond to the flow of displaced Syrians.
Pentagon officials also have been working with Jordan in the effort to monitor Syrian chemical and biological weapon sites and to try to determine how best to respond to any concerns in that area, he said.
“We’ve also been working with [Jordan] to try to develop their own military and operational capabilities in the event of any contingency there,” Panetta added.
For that reason, he said, “we have a group of our forces there, working to help them build a headquarters and to ensure that we make the relationship between the United States and Jordan a strong one so we can deal with all of the possible consequences” of the war in Syria.
The U.S. presence in Jordan consists of about 150 mostly Army special operations forces, some of whom have been in Jordan for several months, a senior defense official said.
The United States also has reached out to Turkey on humanitarian and chemical and biological weapons issues, the secretary said.
“They’re obviously concerned about the CBW sites as well,” Panetta said, “so we’ve worked with them to do what we can to monitor that situation.”
On the U.S. approach to the situation in Syria, Panetta said the nation, in addition to working with allies to apply as much diplomatic pressure as possible, operates in three important areas.
One area is humanitarian relief, he said.
“We’ve provided funds for humanitarian assistance and we have provided other facilities that are needed … to support the large number of refuges that have gathered in these different camps,” the secretary said.
A second area involves monitoring chemical and biological weapon sites in Syria.
“We continue to be concerned about security at those sites,” Panetta said. “We want to ensure that security is maintained and we want to be very sure that those [weapons] do not fall into the wrong hands.” The United States continues to work with regional partners to monitor the situation and evaluate the security of the sites, he added.
The third area involves assisting the opposition, the secretary added, including providing nonlethal support.
“I know there are countries in the region that are providing lethal support,” he said, “but our effort is aimed at trying to work with the opposition in every way possible to … try to develop their capabilities as well.”