By Dale McFeatters
The U.S. has sent a small military force to Jordan to help that ally if the violence from the Syrian civil war threatens to spread, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a NATO conference Wednesday in Brussels.
The Pentagon chief's words could be taken as a broad hint that the major NATO nations ― of which Turkey is a member ― should take a more active role in at least logistically supporting the Syrian rebels.
The Obama administration has been under attack from Mitt Romney for not arming the Syrian rebels. But, which particular group of rebels? Romney, with his painfully thin Mideast experience, can't seem to answer that question.
It is not as simple as it sounds on the campaign trail. Some of the rebels belong to anti-U.S., radical Islamic groups with ties to various al-Qaida offshoots.
Panetta said about 150 U.S. troops will establish a headquarters and provide medical assistance, water, food and other aid to the estimated 200,000 Syrian refugees who have fled their country.
The action represents a significant change in the Obama administration. For the first time in the Syrian conflict, there are U.S. "boots on the ground," to use that overworked-but-accurate expression.
An estimated 2,000 Jordanians are fighting in Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. In reprisal for a similar situation in Turkey, which has provided sanctuary to the rebels, the Turks engaged in cross-border shelling, which in Jordan may cause the U.S. to cross the line into active military logistical support for the Jordanians, among the closest U.S. allies in the region.
The White House and Pentagon have brushed off any suggestion of direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict ― with one major exception.
Syria has substantial stocks of chemical weapons, and U.S. intelligence says Assad has taken steps to move and secure the weapons. If there were any likelihood that the weapons would fall into the hands of the radical Islamist groups in the anti-Assad coalition, that would be a "red line" for the U.S. to intervene to secure those stocks.
The dispatch of a handful of troops may seem like a small gesture, but it is an intensely symbolic one ― and perhaps the first incremental step in our involvement in that war.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer for Scripps Howard News Service.