On Thursday night, the United States took the welcome step of acknowledging its years-long military effort to undermine the Syrian regime by shifting from covert operations to kinetic strikes. President Donald Trump deserves commendation. He has a long record of expressing skepticism about the prospects for a successful intervention in Syria. But he was faced with a historic challenge by the Assad regime, and he met the moment. Moreover, in explaining that this mission was an effort to restore the norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, Trump defined the action in Syria as a campaign in defense of vital U.S. national interest; not a humanitarian mission. However, the administration has not made it clear what the parameters of this campaign are or even if it is a campaign at all. It is, therefore, incumbent on Congress to not just execute its constitutional role as the arbiter of war and peace but to guide the administration by helping to set some of those parameters.
“Several key Senate Republicans have said they don’t think Trump would need to pursue [Authorization for Use of Military Force] to strike Syria if he wanted to,” revealed ABC News reporter Ali Rogin hours before the missiles started flying. There is simply no justification for such a dereliction. The War Powers Act provides the White House all legal justification needed to pursue the limited action it has taken, but only politics would prevent lawmakers from taking up a more legally sound AUMF targeting the Syrian government.
Congress has few excuses. If Trump requested an AUMF in Syria, it would not resemble Barack Obama’s demand for a resolution authorizing the fight against the Islamic State. Obama explicitly requested a resolution authorizing military force that would have had no time limits or geographic constraints, and would have legitimized the use of force against ISIS affiliates yet to be founded. Such a resolution would have been irresponsible and duplicative of the 2001 AUMF authorizing force against “associated forces” of al-Qaeda.
No similar qualms should prevent the congressional authorization of strikes on the Syrian regime, a specific entity that exists only within well-defined borders. The only obstacle before lawmakers today is the same fear that paralyzed them in 2013: that the president’s heart isn’t in the mission, and that their constituents would punish them for taking a hard vote to authorize another Mideast war. But are those valid concerns?
“This was not a small strike,” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster asserted last night following the announcement that the United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Syria. Those strikes were aimed at the Shayrat air base near Homs, whence it is believed Tuesday’s nerve gas attack originated. Those missiles targeted the airfield, Syrian warplanes, fuel depots, and other relevant assets. In observance of a “de-confliction” agreement the United States inked with Russia in 2015, the administration informed Moscow ahead of the strikes to make sure Russian personnel co-located at Assad’s bases would not get caught in the crossfire. That means Assad’s forces knew the strike was coming, and the casualties resulting from them were minimized as a result.
So what’s the follow-on strategy for this campaign? To hear officials tell it, there is none. Last night, a U.S. Defense Department official told Reuters the strikes on Syrian targets was a “one-off.” House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff confirmed that assessment: “It’s not the present intention to have more than this single strike,” he said. If the goal of these strikes was to communicate to the regime that the use of chemical weapons on civilians is no longer a cost-free proposition for the regime, that’s a welcome development. It will not, however, end after one strike.
As McMaster confessed, the attacks on Thursday night did nothing to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to use unconventional or standard weaponry to massacre civilians, as it has for seven years. When—not if—the next massacre occurs, the administration will face substantial political pressure to respond. To do otherwise would be to abandon the rationale for Thursday’s strikes. But Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus will face equal pressure to make those retaliatory strikes costlier for the United States than Thursday’s was.
If this becomes a campaign and the White House decides to degrade the Assad regime from the air, the diminishing returns and increased risk of collateral damage from cruise missiles will give way to a reliance on fixed-wing aircraft to execute strikes. Russia has already promised to strengthen the sophisticated air defense network it has installed around likely U.S. targets in Syria. Facing increased domestic pressure to continue the mission against Assad but lacking a painless way to do so, the Trump administration will find itself in a predicament.
Moreover, what if the Assad regime again ignores a “red line” set by an American president and deploys chemical weapons? And how does the White House define chemical weapons? As chlorine gas rained down upon Syrian civilians over the course of the last four years, the Obama administration simply decided not to count it as a weapon of mass destruction to preserve the fiction it had rid Syria of WMDs. Does the Trump administration believe chlorine, like sarin, is a chemical weapon? It’s a question the White House should answer before the matter is forced upon them by events.
By making a case for why striking Assad is both a moral matter and an issue of paramount national security, the president can soften the public’s apprehension toward a campaign in Syria targeting Assad. If Trump won’t make the case, members of Congress can and should. At the very least, they must sanction this mission. To sit back and allow the president to define the terms of engagement relying entirely on the constitutionally dubious War Powers Act would be pure cowardice.
Beyond all this, Congress should also play a role in defining the mission in which the Trump administration is engaged. The statements from Trump administration officials, which suggest this is not a military campaign but a reflex, may soon be overtaken by events. It would nevertheless be prudent for Congress to decline to wait for an invitation before defining the purpose of this mission for the president and guiding him toward a set of clearly defined and achievable objectives. In this way, a modest improvement over the Obama administration’s approach toward Syria can be transformed into a vast improvement.