BRUSSELS — The United States has sent military troops to the Jordan-Syria border to bolster that country's military capabilities in the event that violence escalates along its border with Syria, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.
Speaking at a NATO conference of defense ministers in Brussels, Panetta said the U.S. has been working with Jordan to monitor chemical and biological weapons sites in Syria and also to help Jordan deal with refugees pouring over the border from Syria. The troops are also building a headquarters for themselves.
But the revelation of U.S. military personnel so close to the 19-month-old Syrian conflict suggests an escalation in the U.S. military involvement in the conflict, even as Washington pushes back on any suggestion of a direct intervention in Syria.
It also follows several days of shelling between Turkey and Syria, an indication that the civil war could spill across Syria's borders and become a regional conflict.
"We have a group of our forces there working to help build a headquarters there and to insure that we make the relationship between the United States and Jordan a strong one so that we can deal with all the possible consequences of what's happening in Syria," Panetta said.
Meanwhile, Turkish jets on Wednesday forced a Syrian passenger plane to land at Ankara, Turkey, airport on suspicion that it may be carrying weapons.
A Syrian Air Airbus A320 coming from Moscow was intercepted by F16 jets as it entered Turkish airspace and was escorted to the capital's Esenboga Airport, the state-run TRT television reported.
"There are civil aviation rules, planes are required to make clear statements (concerning their cargo)," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in an interview with Turkey's TGRT television from Athens. "We received information that it was carrying certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules."
"Should the information (received by authorities) turn out to be true, then whatever is required by international law will be done," he added.
The head of Turkey's civil aviation agency Bilal Eksi said there were 37 passengers and crew on board the plane. Davutoglu said the passengers were being treated "hospitably" and given meals while the plane's cargo was being inspected.
The sending of U.S. troops to Jordan comes with the U.S. presidential election less than a month away, and at a time when Republican nominee Mitt Romney has been criticizing President Barack Obama's foreign policy, accusing the administration of embracing too passive a stance in the Mideast region.