In mid January, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson unveiled the administration’s new policy with concern to Syria. In a widely covered speech at Stanford, Tillerson declared an open-ended commitment of US forces in that country. “Let us be clear,” said Tillerson, “the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge.” Asking the American people for “patience,” Tillerson also signaled a long-term commitment to regime change. While acknowledging that “some Americans are skeptical of continued involvement in Syria,” Tillerson claimed it is “vital for the U.S. to remain engaged” in Syria.
Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan told The Nation on Tuesday that Tillerson’s statement “flies in the face of the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973. Congress has never authorized force against Syrian, Turkish, Yemeni Houthi, Russian, Iranian, or North Korean forces. Yet, reportedly, a secret administration memo may claim the legal justification to do just that: attack Syrian, North Korean, and other forces without any congressional authorization”
And as The Washington Post reported last week, “the U.S. military is now committed to a potentially indefinite presence in Syria that is opposed by all of the main players in the country.”
Currently there are, in the absence of congressional authorization and in violation of international law (since the United States was not attacked by Syria, nor are US troops there at the invitation of the sovereign Syrian government), an estimated 2,000 American troops based in Syria. Given this, it was odd, though hardly surprising, when major US media outlets like CNN carried the news that American occupying troops were acting “defensively” last week when the United States launched a series of strikes against regime forces, killing over 100 Syrian soldiers, in retaliation for an attack on a headquarters of US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces in Khusham. Reports emerged this week that perhaps dozens, if not hundreds, of Russian mercenaries were also killed in the US attack.
For their part, the Israelis, in response to the breach of its airspace by an unarmed Iranian drone, brought the entire region into a hairsbreadth of full-out war when it launched a series of air strikes against Syria forces over the weekend. The founder of the Islamist terror group al-Nusra praised the Israeli strikes, tweeting that his group welcomes “any Israeli aerial or naval bombardment against the [Syrian] regime and Iran in Syria. We urge them to do more.”
Meanwhile, the administration, not content with its efforts to undermine the Sochi talks to settle the conflict, has also announced plans to create a 30,000-strong “security force” made up of allegedly moderate rebels on the borders of Turkey and Iran in northern Syria. Turkish president Erdogan, himself no stranger to the practice of terror, condemned the proposed security force as a would-be “terror army.”
The policy of regime change in Syria is being driven by both the administration’s obsession—actively egged on by Tel Aviv and Riyadh—with Iran and by the perception that the secular, pro-Iranian, and brutal Assad is a bad actor in the region.
But it should be kept in mind that, as NYU’s Stephen Holmes has written, “Homicidal rulers are sometimes toppled, it is true, but rarely by good Samaritans.” This is certainly so in the case of Syria, where American (and Israeli) intervention has only served to strengthen the hand of radical jihadi groups like al-Nusra. It is often too little noted that Assad is (and has been) popular among his own people, whom he is routinely accused of butchering. Indeed, by October of last year, over 700,000 Syrians had returned to their homes in government-controlled areas.
Still more, this would not be the first time the Trump administration has violated international law with concern to Syria, the first being the April air strikes, launched under a pretext for which US Defense Secretary James Mattis has recently admitted the United States has no evidence. For his part, Senate Armed Services Committee member Tim Kaine is demanding that Trump explain the administration’s legal basis for that attack. According to NBC News, “Kaine and others worry that such action compromises congressional oversight over military action.”
Meanwhile, opposition to Trump’s intervention in Syria is mounting from the small but growing anti-war caucus in the House.
California Democrat Ro Khanna told The Nation on Tuesday that he believes “deploying US troops in Syria to counter the threat of Iran and see the end of the Assad government without congressional authorization is unconstitutional. While it is not disputed that Iran and Syria are both despotic, human rights–violating regimes, these plans need to be specifically authorized by Congress to permit the deployment of US military forces in Syria.”
Khanna, one of the rare former Obama administration officials bold enough to challenge the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus, went on to note that “Iran is not mentioned in the 2001 AUMF, and in no way can be an associated force of Al Qaeda or ISIL. Iran and ISIL are enemies on the battlefield, and Iran has overlapping interests with the US in ensuring their defeat. Maintaining a US military presence to counter against Iranian influence in Syria therefore cannot be justified under the 2001 AUMF. While a war has not been declared on Iran, the deployment of US troops in Syria constitutes imminent hostilities.”
“The administration must,” said Khanna, “remove US troops from Syria or provide a legal and constitutional justification for military efforts.”
For his part, Congressman Pocan warns that “If the administration refuses to obey the Constitution voluntarily, my colleagues and I will use all tools at our disposal to enforce its compliance with the law, including invoking the War Powers Resolution to remove US forces from unauthorized hostilities.”
Indeed, these few Democratic congressmen engaged in carrying out their Constitutional responsibilities are aware of the possibility, as Middle East scholar Max Abrahms has warned, that there is a “very real possibility of a war escalating between Russia-Syria-Hezbollah-Iran and US-Israel, possibly including Saudi Arabia. I see many ways how things can escalate and few ways for things to de-escalate.”
In the end it would seem that those few who have long warned of the attendant and very real dangers of a new Cold War with Russia are sadly being proven correct.