Congress is debating whether to authorize US military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as part of the campaign against the Islamic State (IS).
A growing number of House and Senate members in recent days have made clear their desire to delineate President Barack Obama’s ability to launch airstrikes or other operations inside Syria as part of his stated desire to “degrade and destroy” the group also known as ISIS or ISIL. Some lawmakers, however, are worried that a narrow authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) could unwittingly amount to doing Assad’s bidding for him.
“If you only go after ISIL,” one congressional aide close to the issue told Al-Monitor, “Assad wins.”
Buttressing that argument, a Lebanese source close to the Syrian government told Al-Monitor that Assad’s forces were deliberately focusing on defeating other rebel groups even as they gave IS free rein. The goal, the source said, was to eliminate all possible alternatives the United States and Western powers can turn to as allies in the fight against IS.
A narrowly tailored bill that only targets IS, however, may be more politically palatable for many lawmakers reluctant to open another war front just before the November elections. Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard national security law professor who is influential on Capitol Hill, argues such an authorization can be written in a way that doesn’t contradict the US policy of getting rid of Assad.
“There are precedents for dealing with and fudging such policy conflicts in AUMFs,” Goldsmith wrote in an Aug. 27 blog post. “Basically, Congress simply conditions the use of force on findings by the president that the use of force serves or is consistent with some policy goal. … An IS AUMF could condition the use of force in Syria on a finding that the use of force would serve US policy goals in Syria, however defined (enhancing the position of moderate rebels, degrading Assad’s position along some dimension, etc.).”
The debate in Congress comes amid growing calls inside the administration for action on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. While the president has yet to order strikes inside Syria — “We don’t have a strategy, yet,” he said last week — lawmakers don’t want to be caught flat-footed in case he opts for such action when Congress has already left town until after the November elections.
“If we’re going into Syria,” the aide said, “what are we going into Syria for?”
The aide acknowledged that typically the administration would present a plan of action that Congress would then debate and vote on. In this case, however, Congress may find itself in the unusual position of taking action first when it returns from summer recess next week. With as little as two weeks of congressional activity left before the midterm elections, the aide said there’s talk of attaching an AUMF against IS as a rider to a short-term spending bill that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hopes to pass by the end of the month.
Already, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee have announced their intention to push legislation authorizing the use of military force beyond the 60 days from when the administration first launched strikes against IS inside Iraq last month. Secretary of State John Kerry may testify about the administration’s regional strategy to combat IS in two weeks, although the date hasn’t been set.
“Congress needs to play a vital role and we are determined that the House Foreign Affairs Committee will lead the way,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., told reporters on a conference call Tuesday, according to the Daily Beast. “We believe that before the president can continue beyond 60 days of doing airstrikes in Iraq or anyplace else, he would have to come to Congress and get Congress’ authority to continue.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., plans to introduce legislation that would give the administration broad authority to go after all “countries, organizations or persons associated with or supporting terrorist groups.” And House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is asking his colleagues to support a joint resolution demanding that Obama present a plan to Congress for action against IS within 60 days.
In the Senate, Armed Services member Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has also announced his intention to file legislation authorizing action in Syria. It makes no mention of Assad.
“This will ensure there’s no question that the president has the legal authority he needs to use airstrikes in Syria,” Nelson said in a statement. “Let there be no doubt, we must go after ISIS right away because the United States is the only one that can put together a coalition to stop this group that’s intent on barbaric cruelty.”
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