WASHINGTON - U.S. military commanders have been told to explore ways to increase security assistance to Lebanon and Iraq, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said Wednesday, as the violence in Syria spills across the borders and the Iraqis face growing threats from the local al-Qaida offshoot.
Gen. Martin Dempsey said the assistance is aimed at improving the two nations' military capabilities and could include sending in U.S. training teams and accelerating foreign military sales of weapons and equipment to Iraq and Lebanon.
Dempsey made the recommendation to U.S. Central Command in recent weeks, according to Air Force Col. Ed Thomas, a spokesman for the Army general. There have been no U.S. military trainers in Iraq since troops left at the end of 2011, as the war there ended. But the U.S. has provided military training and assistance to Lebanon for a number of years.
"Militarily, what we're doing is assisting our partners in the region, the neighbors of Syria, to ensure that they're prepared to account for the potential spillover effects," Dempsey said during a Pentagon briefing Wednesday. "As you know, we've just taken a decision to leave some Patriot missile batteries and some F-16s in Jordan as part of the defense of Jordan. We're working with our Iraqi counterparts, the Lebanese Armed Forces and Turkey through NATO."
He said that as he looked at the challenges being faced by Syria's neighbors, including the re-emergence of al-Qaida in Iraq, he determined that the U.S. should help them build up their military abilities. He said the assistance would not involve sending U.S. combat troops into Lebanon or Iraq.
The U.S. last week left about a dozen F-16 fighter jets in Jordan, where they will be flying and conducting training operations. The Pentagon also left a Patriot missile battery there, bringing the total number of American forces in Jordan to about 1,000.
U.S. officials said the increased show of military might in Jordan was a signal to Syria that it must confine its civil war within its borders. The officials said it is meant to show that the U.S. was committed to its defense relationship with Jordan and that America intended to maintain a strong presence in the region. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the planning publicly.
Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to provide any additional information about U.S. plans to provide weapons to Syrian rebels, other than to say that the U.S. military has no role so far in that program.
According to officials, the CIA was coordinating the effort to arm the rebel groups.