Thirty miles north of the Red Sea, near the Jordanian town of Al Quweira, 8,000 troops from the United States, Jordan, and 19 partner countries concluded a 12-day military exercise that ran from June 9 through June 20. The exercise, named “Eager Lion,” aims to bolster defense capabilities in the region and enhance military-to-military relationships between the U.S. and its allies.
Defense Department statements frame Eager Lion as a regularly scheduled exercise that gives U.S. forces the “opportunity to operate with, contribute to, and learn from their Jordanian partners, all while promoting long-term peace in the region.” In an initial press conference in Amman, U.S. Major General Robert G. Catalanotti, speaking alongside Jordanian Major General Awni Al-Adwan, praised Eager Lion as the “pinnacle exercise” of all joint military exercises in the Middle East. While international observers point to the convenience of hosting 8,000 military personnel (about 4,500 from the U.S.) and military equipment in Jordan at a time when instability in Syria is a major concern, U.S. and Jordanian military officials initially denied any relationship between the exercise and the Syrian Civil War and insisted that the drills would take place far from the Syrian border.
Nonetheless, the halfway point of this year’s exercise coincided with President Obama’s June 13 decision to arm Syrian rebels, a reversal of course that has brought renewed attention to Eager Lion. Moreover, rumors that F-16 jets and Patriot missiles employed in the exercise would be left behind in Jordan after Eager Lion were confirmed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on June 17. As of June 22, 700 combat-ready troops remain in Jordan “until the security situation becomes such that they are no longer needed,” according to President Obama.
The White House announcement on June 13 affirmed predictions voiced in Middle Eastern media outlets that the U.S. would provide lethal assistance to Syrian rebels. Jordanian news network JBC featured a discussion of U.S. goals in conducting Eager Lion, concluding that the U.S. show of strength through deploying Patriots and troops is solely for Jordan’s protection. An episode of the Damascus-based “Syria tomorrow” show contained similar discussion, with participants concluding that U.S. military equipment stationed near the Syrian border could unexpectedly bring the U.S. into the conflict.
Mohammad Momani, Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communication, highlighted that the installation of military equipment in Jordan was a response to a request from Jordan and not an independent decision on the part the U.S. government. Defense Department statements publicizing the decision to leave behind Patriot missiles and F-16s highlight this request for military aid, which is similar to Turkey’s request to deploy Patriot missiles from NATO in 2012. Nonetheless, military aid is noted in Syrian and Jordanian media as a sign of the increasingly critical role of the U.S. in regional peacekeeping operations. A CNN report also noted that in addition to jets and missiles, the U.S. is sending 200 military planners to Jordan and is prepared to deploy marine trainers and navy ships already in place in the Mediterranean Sea should Jordan be threatened by unrest in Syria. State Department press conferences on June 3 and 4 declined to offer details on Eager Lion, deferring reporters to the Pentagon for additional details.