foreign policy

Why Are U.S. Troops Staying in Syria? The Trump Administration Won’t Say

U.S. soldiers patrol near an Iraqi army base on the outskirts of Mosul on November 23, 2016. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

In a pair of letters issued within the last month, Pentagon and State Department officials indicated that the Trump administration envisions U.S. soldiers remaining on the ground in Syria and Iraq indefinitely, even once Islamic State militants have been defeated, and does not believe it requires additional permission from Congress to do so.

The letters were written in response to an inquiry from Virginia Senator Tim Kaine asking Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to explain the administration’s intentions in Syria and how it justified its authority for carrying them out, the New York Times reported on Thursday.

Among other things, Kaine wanted to know whether the administration was contemplating keeping U.S. forces in these countries in order to combat Iran, citing a December story in The Wall Street Journal in which unnamed officials indicated that this was indeed its emerging strategy. Tillerson also hinted at this strategic angle in a speech last month in which he said our goals in Syria included preventing ISIS and Al Qaeda from regrouping there, supporting the U.N. process for peace and political reform, and curbing the influence of Iran.

In their responses to Kaine, written by David Trachtenberg, the deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, and Mary K. Waters, the assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs, the two departments asserted that the continued threat from ISIS and international law provided all the legal rationale the administration required to commit American troops to these conflicts.

In the Pentagon’s response to Kaine, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy David Trachtenberg asserted that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Al Qaeda and the 2002 AUMF green lighting the war in Iraq continued to give the Executive branch the authority to fight ISIS in both countries.

The U.S. is not targeting other militias or organizations, including Shia militia groups or Iranian proxies, Trachtenberg wrote, while the administration does not claim authority to attack Syrian government forces or allied militias under the 2001 AUMF, but has carried out strikes on these entities under its authority to counter threats to U.S. forces and our partners.

In the other letter, Mary K. Waters, the assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs, argues that the U.S. has the right to use force in Iraq by the consent of the Iraqi government, whereas in Syria, it is acting “in the collective self-defense of Iraq (and other States) and in U.S. national self-defense.” These self-defense activities include “the use of force to defend U.S., Coalition, and U.S.-supported partner forces from any threats from the Syrian Government and pro-Syrian Government forces.”

Both letters dodged Kaine’s questions about the administration’s long-term intentions in Syria with regard to shifting its strategy toward the containment or confrontation of Iran, or forcing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to engage in political negotiations to resolve the intractable civil war.

The theory that the 2001 AUMF gives the Executive branch authority for counterterrorism operations in the Middle East more than a decade later, and against an entity that did not exist at the time, was first advanced under the Obama administration to justify its intervention against ISIS in 2014 and has underpinned the ongoing U.S. presence in Syria ever since. Constitutional law experts of all political stripes, as well as members of Congress from both parties, have said they regard this theory as highly dubious.

As disconcerting as it is that the administration continues to deploy soldiers in Syria with no authorization from Congress and asserts that no such authorization is required, it is also refusing to give straight answers about its objectives there. Then again, that makes us no different than every other belligerent in the Syrian conflict: Claiming to be just fighting terrorists has been a standard refrain for a while now in Damascus, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, and Jerusalem as well, even when ulterior motives are plain to see.

The revelation that the U.S. may be in for yet another forever war also comes at a particularly violent and uncertain moment in the regional conflict into which Syria has spiraled. For the past week, Syrian and Russian planes have been pummeling the eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus in what aid workers and residents describe as an indiscriminate attack, including the highly destructive “barrel bombs” the Syrian government is infamous for raining on civilian areas from helicopters. Over 400 people have been killed in the assault and over 2,100 injured, while hospitals and other critical infrastructure facilities have been put out of commission.

Syria and Russia claim that they are targeting Islamist militants who are using the area to launch mortar attacks on Damascus and using civilians as human shields. Russia claims the Western media is biased against it and reports of Syrian atrocities in eastern Ghouta are fake news. The U.N., however, has called the situation a potential “massacre” and is pushing for the Security Council to impose a 30-day ceasefire to allow for medical evacuations and the delivery of emergency aid.

Russia has threatened to veto any resolution that does not make an exception for strikes on jihadi militants such as it is purportedly targeting in eastern Ghouta — though it’s unclear how a resolution could allow the continued bombing of the area and also enable aid to safely reach the 400,000 civilians who live there. The U.S. delegation to the U.N. has accused Russia of stonewalling any meaningful action.

Turkey, meanwhile, continues its campaign to drive Kurdish forces out of the northern region of Afrin, where it is now clashing with pro-Assad fighters sent there to help the Kurds resist the Turks. The Turkish incursion is a delicate situation for the U.S., as Turkey is a NATO ally but the Kurdish militias have been some of our most reliable partners in Syria.

Russia’s involvement in Syria is also getting more complicated, Brookings fellow Pavel K. Baev writes, as it juggles uneasy alliances with Iran and Turkey and attempts to broker a peace while continuing to prop up its troublesome client Assad, who will inevitably face rebellion as long as he remains in power. The continued involvement of both U.S. and Russian forces in Syria increases the risk of a direct clash between American and Russian soldiers. Indeed, this may already have happened earlier this month when some Russian mercenaries were reportedly killed in a U.S. airstrike on Syrian government forces near Deir al-Zour.

The manifold hazards and complexities of this war make it all the more important that Congress and the public get some honest answers out of the administration as to just what we’re doing there, how our presence contributes to the stabilization of that country, whether we are in fact engaged in a proxy war with Iran, and whether and how we intend to stand up to Moscow and convince it to cut Assad loose in the interest of forging a real and durable peace.

Why Are U.S. Troops Staying in Syria? Trump Admin. Won’t Say