(AP) – Syrian state media sharply criticized Jordan for hosting U.S.-backed training of rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad, warning Thursday that by actively backing the opposition Amman risks falling into the “volcanic crater” of the conflict.
The stern warning, broadcast by state radio and published in a front-page editorial in the government daily al-Thawra, will likely aggravate Jordan’s security fears over the civil war in its northern neighbor. Amman worries that Syria could use chemical weapons against it, or that agents linked to the Assad regime or the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah could carry out deadly attacks in the U.S.-allied kingdom.
U.S. and other Western and Arab officials say Jordan has been facilitating arms shipments and hosting training camps for Syrian rebels since last October. Those receiving training are mainly secular Sunni Muslim tribesmen from central and southern Syria who once served in the army and police.
The officials say the force is expected to fill a security vacuum — mainly to protect the common border with Jordan, assist displaced Syrians and possibly set up a safe haven to shelter refugees — if and when Assad is toppled.
The Syrians are also envisioned as a counterbalance to the Islamic militant groups that have proven to be among the most effective of the myriad rebel factions fighting Assad’s forces on the ground. Chief among those rebel extremist groups is Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. says is associated with al-Qaida and has designated a terrorist organization.
The prominence of such extremist groups has fueled fears in Jordan that the chaos in Syria could lead to a broken state where Islamic militants have a free hand. Israel and the United States also are concerned about militants potentially operating in the area near the Israeli frontier with Syria in the Golan Heights should Assad’s regime collapse.
Syrian state television said leaks in the U.S. media about the training efforts show that Jordan “has a hand in training terrorists and then facilitating their entry into Syria,” while state radio accused Jordan of “playing with fire.”
Al-Thawra, meanwhile, accused Amman of adopting a policy of “double ambiguity” by training the rebels while at the same time publicly insisting on a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis.
“Despite the denial, Jordan’s attempt to put out the flame from the leaked information will not help as it continues with its mysterious policy, which brings it closer to the volcanic crater,” al-Thawra warned.
A spokesman for Jordan’s government did not return repeated AP calls for comment.
The training and the influx of foreign-funded weapons have coincided with rebel gains in southern Syria near the strategic border area with Jordan.
On Wednesday, opposition fighters captured a military base outside the southern city of Daraa, the birthplace of the anti-Assad uprising. That victory follows the rebel takeover of Dael, one of the province’s bigger towns, and another air defense base in the area late last month.
Their aim is to secure a corridor from the Jordanian border to Damascus in preparation for an eventual assault on the capital. And they have made major progress along the way. Activists say several towns and villages along the Daraa-Damascus route are now in rebel hands.
It is widely believed that the rebels are close to seizing control of the two border posts with Jordan — a significant gain that would bolster arms shipments to the rebels.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels seized most parts of Karak neighborhood in Daraa on Thursday after several days of fighting. It also reported clashes at a checkpoint outside a camp for displaced Syrians on the outskirts of Daraa. It said rockets fell inside the camp, but did not say who fired them, or how many people died.
By JAMAL HALABY
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.