The Authority for Striking Syria
Trump should make his case for any further involvement and get congressional authorization before moving.
President Donald Trump’s choice last week to launch 59 missiles at the Shayat Airfield in Syria was viewed by many in the world as a measured and proportional response to Bashar al-Assad’s contemptible and horrific decision to use chemical weapons on his own people. They saw Trump’s swift reaction as presidential and a much-needed defense of international norms and values. Domestically, support for Trump’s decision has been widespread on Capitol Hill and around the country, a rare phenomenon considering the fractious nature of American politics in this day and age. Most observers believe that Trump’s actions were needed to shore up American credibility around the world, primarily because of Barack Obama’s inability to enforce his own self-imposed “red-line” back in 2013.
In a letter to Congress following the attacks, President Trump justified his actions under the executive powers found in Article II of the Constitution. However, Trump and his national security team, from National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMaster to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have not yet articulated a strategic vision on the way ahead for Syria. Due to this lack of clarity, a growing contingent of Congress feels now is the appropriate time to review the executive branch’s legal authority for future military action against the Assad government. Specifically, they want to determine whether a new authorization for use of military force (AUMF) needs to be crafted for operations in Syria.
Before determining that, it’s important to understand the concept of its implementation. Per the War Powers Act of 1973, United States military forces cannot operate in a deployed status for more than 60 days and operations lasting longer than that time frame require a congressional declaration of war or an authorized use of military force. Currently, the United States conducts operations around the world under AUMFs that were passed in 2001 and 2002.
The 2001 AUMF, only 60 words long, was invoked by both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations to justify military actions around the world. Now, the Trump administration has used it to justify troop presence in Syria, where U.S. forces are conducting missions on a daily basis. However, many legislators feel that these pieces of legislation are dated and need to be modified or replaced if the U.S. is to continue operating in Syria, one of the most dangerous places in the world. The question is whether or not the leadership of Congress is willing to underwrite a thoughtful debate about the future of American forces in the region.
The current situation in Syria is apocalyptic. The humanitarian crisis is epic — between 400,000-500,000 people are dead and up to five million more have fled the war-torn nation. The civil war in Syria has been an ongoing conflict for the last six years and it’s an incredibly complicated area of operations. Multiple factions, including the Assad government (actively supported by Russian and Hezbollah troops), Sunni Arabs, Salafi jihadists and Kurdish forces are just a few of the groups fighting for power.
If Trump plans on continuing actions in Syria, then Congress needs to press him and his team for a strategic plan and goals. Once a plan has been codified by the executive branch, Congress then needs to work with Trump’s national security team on developing an AUMF that enables the Defense Department and other executive agencies to address the security concerns of Syria and the surrounding nations, including Jordan and Lebanon. This is Trump’s best opportunity to show that he is serious about changing the dysfunctional dynamics of the Levant.
However, if he chooses to ignore Congress, he will continue the recent pattern of presidents who fail to appreciate the constitutional role of the legislative branch when it comes to putting our nation’s men and women in harm’s way.
We’ll close with the words of our first commander in chief, George Washington: “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress,” he wrote in 1793, “therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”