What’s Next for the U.S. In Syria?

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The Islamic State, a terrorist army that only three years ago shocked the world by defeating a U.S.-trained Iraqi army and lording over about 34,00 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria, is today a decrepit version of itself. Its fighters have been pushed into smaller pockets in the Middle Euphrates Valley and the western Iraqi desert; its finances are drying up at a record clip, and so many of the group’s members have been detained by Iraqi forces that Baghdad’s judicial system is overworked and underprepared.

With the ISIS threat largely contained, however, the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops currently stationed on Syrian soil could soon be given a new mission. Scholars and analysts who consult with the Trump administration are recommending the U.S. switch some of its focus to combating Iran’s considerable influence in Syria. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Satterfield suggested to members of Congress earlier this month that Tehran’s attempt to establish a land-bridge through Syrian territory to Lebanon could be a basis for keeping thousands of American troops in the country long after the anti-ISIS mission is complete.

There is one big problem with this preliminary plan, however: Congress has not debated, let alone authorized, an anti-Iran mission inside Syria.

If President Trump strongly believes that it is in the U.S. national security interest to counter Iranian influence in a post-ISIS Syria, he needs to persuade the American people through their elected representatives on Capitol Hill that such an objective is worth the financial and human costs.

Since the first bombs dropped on ISIS positions in Iraq in August 2014, the U.S. has relied on the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) as the domestic statutory authority for the campaign. The 2001 AUMF, passed one week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was originally crafted to defeat the al Qaeda network that perpetrated the attack and the Taliban regime that harbored Osama Bin Laden. Over the past decade, however, the resolution has been expanded to such unprecedented heights that virtually every Sunni terrorist organization claiming negligible operational, symbolic, or ideological connection to al Qaeda is covered. 

The 2001 AUMF has served as a crutch for three successive presidents and multiple congresses over a sixteen-year timeframe. Regardless of how local the terrorist group’s ambitions may be or how tangential a threat it poses to U.S. national security, presidents from both parties have leaned heavily on the 2001 AUMF to call the U.S. military into action in at least seven countries across two continents. 

So, when President Barack Obama argued forcefully that the 2001 AUMF was sufficient legal authority to base a military campaign against ISIS, it was just one more extension of a war resolution which was long twisted into a statutory pretzel. While it was true that the Islamic State was a violent competitor to al Qaeda in Syria and the organization’s chief adversary in the jihadist universe, a sufficient number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers came around to the belief that passing a new authorization was simply too difficult politically. Rather than put the country through another national discussion of war and peace as the Constitution requires, Congress bought into the arguments the executive branch lawyers were selling.

However, if using the 2001 AUMF as the legal justification to fight ISIS was an overstretch, using it to justify a counter-Iran mission in Syria would be an insult to America’s constitutional system of separation of powers. Not even the most astute legal mind or constitutional law scholar would be able to make the case of a connection between Iran and ISIS, and indeed not even a Congress that has grown used to placing political opportunism over constitutional responsibility would be able to stand for such a bait-and-switch.

Like al Qaeda, the Islamic State occupies a space in the Sunni jihadist lexicon. Iran, by contrast, is a U.N. member state, a predominantly Shia nation, and a country with a far different vision of what the Middle East should look like. Whereas ISIS’s central goal in Syria was to establish an ultra-fundamentalist Sunni caliphate, Tehran’s national interests involve propping up a proxy regime in Bashar al-Assad; increasing its strategic depth in the Levant; and using Syria as a staging ground to pressure Israel and as a transit point to ship weapons to Hezbollah.

A revamped U.S. strategy in Syria that would prevent Iran from realizing those objectives would involve plunging American troops into a completely different mission, something far more complex than driving ISIS from Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, or Kobani. The mission, in fact, would be so different that it would require a whole new authorization from Congress before the strategy could be carried out.  Even Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has stated to administration officials that current legal authority would be woefully inadequate for an Iran-intensive Syria policy.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution established a mechanism whereby the nation’s political leaders would arrive at such a decision to got to war through a full, honest, transparent, national debate in front of the American people where the pros and cons are laid out in a brutally forthright way.

U.S. history has taught us that launching new wars or expanding a military mission is only worth pursuing if America’s political leadership and the American public support the effort. 

If the Trump administration hopes to change America’s focus in Syria, the first step ought to be following the Constitution and persuading lawmakers that an evolution in the focus of the campaign is in America’s national interest. Lawmakers can no longer defer to the executive branch to make these decisions on its own. For the sake of the country’s democratic fabric, Congress must get off the bench and back into the war-making conversation. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

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