Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing April 17. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is sending about 200 soldiers from an Army headquarters unit to Jordan to assist efforts to contain violence along the Syrian border and plan for any operations needed to ensure the safety of chemical weapons in Syria, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress Wednesday.
The decision to dispatch the 1st Armored Division troops of planners and specialists in intelligence, logistics and operations comes as several lawmakers pressed the Obama administration for even more aggressive steps to end the two-year civil war.
Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, faced persistent questions from senior members of the Armed Services Committee about efforts to force out Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Pentagon leaders made clear that the situation is extremely complicated and they must be certain of the endgame before any military step to try to end the bloodshed.
“You better be damned sure. No-fly zone, safe zone. Once you’re in, you can’t unwind it,” Hagel said.
Dempsey said he has spent a significant portion of his adult life trying to figure out the Mideast. “This is the toughest of all,” he said.
Hagel said the fresh troops will replace a similar number of U.S. forces that have been in Jordan for some months. They also will provide leadership personnel that could command additional forces if it’s determined they are needed in the future.
“Currently, the U.S. forces assisting Jordan now are troops pulled from various units and places,” Hagel said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said that sending a unit that has already served together improves its ability to work as a team.
The unit is based at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Two years of civil war pitting the forces of Assad against his foes has killed an estimated 70,000 people, forced more than 1 million refugees to flee their homes and stretched the resources of neighboring nations.
In Jordan, Information Minister Mohammed Momani confirmed that they would receive 200 American troops as it struggles with the Syrian civil war to its north.
“They will be here to bolster our training and defense capabilities in light of the deterioration in Syria,” Momani told The Associated Press.
He said dispatching American forces to the kingdom was “coordinated” with the Jordanian government.
Hagel’s announcement comes ahead of his trip next week to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Separately, Secretary of State John Kerry will be traveling to Turkey and Dempsey will visit China to discuss the situation in Syria.
President Obama has insisted that Assad must go, but has cautioned about sending military assistance to Syrian opposition forces, which could extend the fighting and unintentionally put weapons in the hands of Islamic extremists.
Obama has made clear that Assad would cross a red line if he were to use his suspected stockpile of chemical weapons — including nerve agents and mustard gas — against the Syrian people.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently sent a letter to Obama calling for him to consider a safe zone inside Syria along the border with Turkey and the deployment of Patriot batteries closer to the border.
McCain has repeatedly called for arming the rebels and imposing a no-fly zone.
Dempsey was asked by McCain whether he is confident that U.S. forces could secure the chemical weapons caches within Syria.
“Not as I sit here today, simply because they’ve been moving it and the number of sites is quite numerous,” Dempsey replied.
McCain was frustrated with Dempsey’s answers, in particular the general’s reluctance about arming the forces fighting Assad.
“My military judgment is now that we have seen the emergence of Jabhat al-Nusra ... and I’m more concerned than I was before,” Dempsey said.
Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, has emerged as the most effective force among the mosaic of rebel units fighting to topple Assad.
Dempsey also raised the specter of hindering the humanitarian effort if the U.S. provides weapons to the rebels.
“Every day that goes by. The situation gets worse, the slaughter goes on,” McCain complained.
Hagel and Dempsey said they met with Obama at the White House on Tuesday and discussed Syria, though they made clear they have not made any specific recommendations on likely steps.
“We’re committed to trying to find the best way out of this,” Hagel said.
Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.