With armored vehicles, uniformed troops, and the American flag flying high in Syria, should the president go to Congress?
Beginning March 4, Twitter was flooded with images of U.S. Army Rangers sitting just outside of Manbij, Syria, with the U.S. flag flying high on the infamous Stryker combat vehicles. By March 8th, multiple news outlets reported that U.S. Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit had deployed to Syria with 155mm Howitzers, marking a clear departure from the “advise, assist, and equip” mission.
It has been the most overt display of the American military presence in Syria to date, and the imagery has invoked memories of invasions past. Noticeably absent is any indication from Congress that the military incursion has been authorized in accordance with Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution and the War Powers Act of 1973, or that it would legally fall under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, resolution passed in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told the New York Times that the flag display was “a visible reminder, for anybody who’s looking to start a fight, that the only fight that should be going on right now is with ISIS.” Davis added this current mission, although different, was conducted under authorities that existed prior to President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
In a statement to Task & Purpose, the Operation Inherent Resolve Public Affairs office said, “The military mission of U.S. forces, who are part of the Coalition in Syria, hasn’t changed from an advise, assist and accompanying mission.” The Public Affairs office went on to say that, “Coalition forces always have the right to self-defense and take appropriate measures to ensure force protection.”
If the AUMF were cited as the legal justification, it would be the latest in a long line of dubious interpretations. The AUMF gives the president authority to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” Given that ISIS did not exist on Sept. 11, and most of its members were small children or not yet born when the attacks occurred, it’s a stretch to say that this latest action is covered under the AUMF.
Meanwhile, the War Powers Act was passed to specifically prevent the executive branch from undertaking open-ended overseas expeditions without congressional consent — the very sorts of operations that successive administrations have tried to maintain with legal perversions like the reliance on a 16-year-old force authorization.
The act gives the executive branch a maximum of 90 days to ask Congress to authorize military incursions. Its stated intent is to “insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”
U.S. military involvement in Syria has been occurring for just shy of three years at this point. Until recently, American involvement had extended to bombing from the air, “training, arming, and advising” on the ground (an undertaking authorized by Congress in 2014), and sporadic low-visibility raids against specific targets.With Rangers and Marine artillery on the ground, it’s clear that the military role has expanded beyond ‘train and advise’.
The long list of U.S. operations in Syria boils down to one fact: There are hundreds of American service members on the ground in Syria in harm’s way, and some have already been injured or killed. The U.S. combat troops outside Manbij and Raqqa are the latest, clearest signs of mission creep. Syria has largely slipped below the average American’s radar, but it’s an invasion nonetheless. It wasn’t “shock and awe” this time; it was “slow and steady.”
President Barack Obama pushed the limits of his executive power in Syria, and arguably exceeded them after Republicans refused to pass a new AUMF that authorized combat troops. The most recent actions ordered by Trump, along with the previous administration’s moves in Syria, seem to exceed the bounds set out in the War Powers Act.
The armed forces are engaged in hostilities in Syria, and have been for far longer than 90 days. The clandestine military actions originally authorized in Syria have now shifted to an overt display of combat force on the ground. By any practical definition, we have invaded Syria and are at war without explicit congressional approval.
The issue at hand isn’t about favoring one party or president over the other; it’s about limiting the powers of the executive branch regardless of who is in office. The founding fathers limited executive power for good reason; that check on strength was on display in the passage of the War Powers Act, which required two-thirds of the Congress to override President Richard Nixon’s veto.
With a Republican president currently in office alongside a Republican legislature, seeking congressional approval very well may be a matter of checking the box. But it’s a box that should and must be checked. Unfortunately, most Americans seem to have become so accustomed to war that they no longer care where, why, or if it’s passed a constitutional sniff test. As Americans, we cannot give an inch and trust that the current commander in chief — or a future one — will not take a mile.
Special thanks to Task & Purpose for contributing to the reporting in this article.