A senior U.S. military commander said the Marine Corps sent some 2,400 soldiers to Jordan in June 2013 in what appeared to mark preparations for a war against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Col. Matthew St. Clair, the commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said his troops, assigned to participate in the Eager Lion exercise, were expecting to also help the tens of thousands of Syrians who were flooding the Hashemite kingdom.

“I thought that exercise would turn into something else, but it did not,” St. Clair said. “The exercise stayed focused on the exercise’s objectives, and continuing to expand and build our partnership with the Jordanian armed forces.”

Addressing the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies on Dec. 5, St. Clair provided an account of how close the U.S. military came to war with Assad, accused of chemical weapons attacks, in the summer of 2013. In August, President Barack Obama ordered preparations for air strikes on Damascus, only to cancel the mission at the last minute.

St. Clair said he had been certain that his unit, with more than 2,000 soldiers, would be mobilized for the war in Syria. The 26th MEU stayed in Jordan for Eager Lion, which took place on June 9-20.

“During our pre-deployment training, we looked very closely at the refugee and humanitarian crisis that was occurring in Jordan based off the conditions in Syria,” St. Clair said. “We put a lot of time and effort into how we would do a humanitarian assistance-type operation.”

St. Clair did not say why the Marines refrained from helping Jordan handle the influx of Syrians, which has reached nearly 600,000. Instead, 26th MEU was ordered to redeploy days after Eager Lion and sent to Egypt and Yemen.

The U.S. commander said the Marines drafted contingency plans for a U.S. strike on Syria. He said the Marines had prepared for the prospect of Iranian- and Syrian-sponsored operations against U.S. embassies and other interests throughout the Middle East. By November, the unit returned to the United States.

“We looked at that, as well other regional reactions to those strikes, if the strikes were to occur,” St. Clair recalled. “Would that require embassy reinforcement for different countries throughout the region? We weren’t just focused on Syria, but other countries and the regional reaction.”