Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has one of the quietest, yet potentially most important, forces in the debate to intervene in the Syrian civil war given Congress’ power to declare war. Today, Reid provided the clearest picture yet of his position. In short: While Reid is wary of getting more involved in Syria, if the President wants to go to war, Reid said he won’t need Senate authorization to do it.
At a roundtable interview for reporters on Wednesday, ThinkProgress asked Reid whether or not President Obama could impose a no-fly zone — that is, use military force against Syrian air assets to prevent them from bombing rebel forces and civilians — without explicit Congressional permission, meaning either a declaration of war or explicit authorization for the use of military force. The Senator strongly cautioned against getting more deeply involved in Syria, but implied it was ultimately the President’s call:
We have about 80,000 people dead, Assad’s a war criminal – and if there is this peace conference, and I hope it works, part of the deal has to be that he’s gone. I don’t think at this stage [pause] less than ten percent of the deaths caused by the non-regime forces are caused by helicopters and missiles. That’s still a lot of people, but I’m not going to run the President’s foreign policy, we know that there are a lot of countries, a significant number of countries providing weapons there, and we’re doing a lot of food, medical supplies, and things of those [sic] nature. We have to be very careful about how we proceed down the next step.
A Senate Democratic aide clarified to ThinkProgress that Reid would defer to the President on both the advisability of a no-fly zone and what legal authorization would be required for the President to lawfully implement one:
The decision on whether a no-fly zone would be advisable, and under what authorities it might be established, is best placed in the hands of the commander-in-chief. Without question, should President Obama decide on such a course, it would be imprudent for him to proceed without first consulting Congress.
The phrase “under what authorities it might be established” is a reference to legal authority for the use of force; suggesting a decision on this issue “is best placed in the hands of the commander-in-chief” amounts to saying that the President is free to make a decision on whether he has the legal authority to establish a no-fly zone, though it would be “imprudent” to make such a decision without discussing it with Congress first.
This stance is consistent with the Senator’s position during the Libya intervention, the last major U.S. military engagement initiated without Congressional approval. While the War Powers Resolution requires the President to end unauthorized military options 60 or 90 days after they begin, U.S. troops remained involved in operations against Libyan forces beyond that window.
The Obama administration argued that these operations mainly involved logistical and technical support for other NATO and local forces, meaning that they were not “hostilities” in the technical legal sense used in the War Powers Act despite the fact that some U.S. forces were still engaged in direct combat. Reid backed this position, arguing that “The War Powers Act has no application to what’s going on in Libya.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has confirmed that the administration is weighing the direct provision of weapons to Syrian rebels. As the situation in Syria deteriorates, regional powers and U.S. lawmakers are attempting to pressure the administration into taking a more direct military role in the conflict.