U.S. forces are set to remain in Iraq and Syria indefinitely following a declaration from the Trump administration that it needs no new authorization to keep soldiers in the war.
The White House has indicated for some time that President Trump’s administration feels there is no need for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in order to continue operations in both Iraq and Syria. Two letters published by the New York Times — one sent by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and one sent in response — flesh out the administration’s justification.
Kaine asked for “clarification and additional information” on current U.S. efforts in Iraq and Syria, expressing concern that the United States might soon lack “domestic or international legal standing” for its wars in both of those countries.
David Trachtenberg, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote back that the 2001 AUMF, part of an effort to combat extremist groups like Al Qaeda, authorizes the United States to remain in Iraq and Syria nearly 20 years later in order to address ongoing militancy. The 2002 AUMF, Trachtenberg wrote, provides much the same justification. He pointed to the presence of ISIS as a key factor in ongoing U.S. efforts in the region.
“Just as when we previously removed U.S. forces prematurely, the group will look to exploit any abatement in pressure to regenerate capabilities and reestablish local control of territory,” Trachtenberg’s letter continued.
The administration has previously established its stance on the lack of necessity for a new AUMF. In October, both Tillerson and Mattis testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the post-9/11 AUMFs provide contemporary legal basis for U.S. forces to remain in both Iraq and Syria.
“This has been a long, 16-year conflict characterized by a very different kind of warfare,” Mattis said at the time. “The 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force, or AUMF, remain a sound basis for ongoing U.S. military operations against a mutating threat.”
In the case of a new AUMF, both Trump administration officials said that the original 2001 AUMF should not be repealed without a replacement, which in turn would have no time or geographic constraints.
The implications of that view are stark. There are currently upwards of 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria, with more than twice that number estimated to be stationed in Iraq. Soldiers were originally sent to the region more than a decade ago under the 2001 AUMF. But as the “War on Terror” has grown and other militant parties like ISIS have risen, efforts to counter militancy and extremism have increasingly operated without oversight or fresh approval from Congress. While most territory held by ISIS has now been liberated in Syria, U.S. forces remain in the country.
Efforts to shift that reality have done little. A month prior to the testimonies of Tillerson and Mattis, the Senate voted 61 to 36 against an amendment that would have repealed the AUMF. Proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the vote marked the first time in 15 years that the full Senate had reviewed the authorization.
“We have fought the longest war in U.S. history under an original authorization to go after the people who attacked us on 9/11,” Paul argued to his colleagues. “That war is long since over. The war has long since lost its purpose. And it’s a long time that — and it’s long time we have a debate in congress over whether we should be at war or not. It is the constitutional role of congress.”
The failure of Paul’s amendment left the AUMF in place. Under the Trump administration’s interpretation, that authorization could have the United States in Iraq and Syria indefinitely. Kaine, the writer of the original letter to Tillerson and Mattis, blasted the White House on Thursday and accused Trump of using the original AUMF to justify a completely new and unsanctioned effort in the war.
“Now the Trump administration is going even further, claiming that the 2001 AUMF also allows the U.S. military to strike [forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad] in areas devoid of ISIS to protect our Syrian partners who seek Assad’s overthrow,” the senator said in a statement. “It is clear the Trump administration is crossing a constitutional line.”
Kaine accused Trump of “acting like a king by unilaterally starting a war.”
While U.S. forces remain indefinitely in the region, they aren’t doing so with much direction. Foreign policy experts have repeatedly criticized the Trump administration’s back-and-forth in the Middle East. Civilian casualties in both Iraq and Syria have also climbed staggeringly since Trump took office. Between 3,923 and 6,102 civilians were killed in both countries during U.S. airstrikes last year, according to an investigation from Airwars. Those numbers mark the deadliest year for civilians yet.
That relentless bombing isn’t any closer to ending realities on the ground, especially in Syria. The country’s seven year civil war saw one of its bloodiest periods to date this week, as regime forces targeted the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta. The area was still under fire as of Friday, with more than 400 casualties reported, almost a fourth of them children.