(CNSNews.com) – On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that about 200 U.S. soldiers were going to Jordan to bolster efforts by a small group already there to contain a spillover of violence from Syria.
And on the other side of the world, Syrian President Bashar Assad warned that the West will pay “a heavy price” in the future for supporting the opposition trying to topple his regime. Assad drew a parallel with U.S. support for the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan that later birthed al-Qaeda.
“The West has paid heavily for funding al-Qaeda in its early stages,” Assad told the Syrian television network Al-Ikhbariya in a rare media appearance. “Today it is doing the same in Syria, Libya and other places, and will pay a heavy price in the heart of Europe and the United States,” he said.
Assad charged that those fighting against his regime are mostly “extremist forces.”
The Obama administration has acknowledged concerns about the growing influence of radical groups among the anti-Assad forces and says its policy it to strengthen those elements in the opposition that are “looking for a democratic, inclusive, and moderate Syria.”
Last December it designated a radical Syrian group called the Al-Nusra Front – viewed by expert observers as among the most effective fighting forces among the rebels – as a foreign terrorist organization, linking it to al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq.
After Al-Nusra last week publicly confirmed that link by pledging loyalty to the al-Qaeda leadership, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters that “everything we’re doing is to help empower the moderate opposition and marginalize these extremists who have a very different vision of the future of Syria.”
The mainstream National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces – which President Obama last December recognized as the sole “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people – voiced concern that the Al-Nusra/al-Qaeda merger announcement would benefit the Assad regime.
“Such initiatives only serve the goals of the Assad regime and harm the progress of the revolution,” the coalition said in a statement on April 14.
Its concerns appear to have been borne out with Assad’s televised comments on Wednesday, which are certain to feed the concerns of Americans already leery about deeper U.S. involvement.
Assad presented a defiant face in the interview, declaring “no to surrender, no to submission.”
“There is no option but victory, otherwise it will be the end of Syria and I don’t think that the Syrian people will accept such an option,” he said.
Assad also criticized Jordan in particular, suggesting the southern neighbor was turning a blind eye to armed rebels entering Syria.
“The fire will not stop at our border and everybody knows that Jordan is exposed as Syria is,” he said, likely alluding to the challenge Jordan’s ruling monarchy itself faces from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.
U.S. soldiers to Jordan
Testifying in Washington, Hagel said a small team of military experts had been in Jordan since last year, working on plans involving chemical weapons and ways of preventing violence spilling into Jordan.
“Last week I ordered the deployment of a U.S. Army headquarters element to enhance this effort in Amman,” he told the panel. “These personnel will continue to work alongside the Jordanian armed forces to improve readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios.”
The State Department has declined to comment on recent reports that the U.S. is training non-jihadist Syrian rebels in Jordan in a bid to counteract the influence of radical elements.
Hagel in his testimony did confirm that the State Department was “providing technical assistance to the opposition which includes training for over 1,500 Syrian leaders and activists from over 100 local councils.”
“The goal is to strengthen these opposition groups that share the international community's vision for Syria's future and minimize the influence of extremists,” he said.
In reply to a question about al-Nusra, Hagel called the group “a very clear and potent force in Syria” and “a very effective terrorist group.”
Some lawmakers are pressing for greater U.S. involvement in the face of the continuing crisis and growing death toll – an estimated 70,000 people killed over two years.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last month jointly urged Obama to take active steps “that would require neither putting U.S. troops on the ground nor acting unilaterally,” including support for a Turkish-proposed safe zone inside Syria’s northern border and “more robust assistance directly to vetted opposition groups.”
Hagel told the hearing Wednesday the Pentagon would “continue to provide the president and Congress with our assessment of options for U.S. military intervention,” but cautioned that the conflict was complicated and warned of potential consequences of direct U.S. military action.
“It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy, and uncertain military commitment. Unilateral military action could strain other key international partnerships, as no international or regional consensus on supporting armed intervention now exists,” he said.
“And finally, a military intervention could have the unintended consequence of bringing the United States into a broader regional conflict or a proxy war.”
“Before we take action, we have to be prepared for what comes next,” chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told the committee.
“The use of force, especially in circumstances where ethnic and religious factors dominate, is unlikely to produce predictable outcomes. Now to be clear, this is not a reason to avoid intervention in conflict, rather to emphasize that unintended consequences are the rule with military interventions of this sort.”
The Afghanistan example cited by Assad also came up at the hearing, with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) noting, “in Afghanistan we armed the insurgents against a government that wasn’t in our interests and they ended up using the arms against us, 10 or 15 years later. You can’t tell where those arms are going to end up, isn’t that correct?”
“It is sir,” replied Dempsey, “and that’s why this issue of arming which on the surface of it seems to be pretty clean, is anything but.”