It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Donald Trump administration has recently affirmed that it has a perfect legal right to remain in Syria as long as it wishes because it is fighting terrorism. The argument goes something like this: Congress has approved a bill that permits the US military to seek out and destroy al-Qaeda and associated groups wherever they may be. It is part of what is referred to as the Authorization to Use Military Force or AUMF. According to the White House, an associated group, the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), remains currently active in Syria and the United States military presence is therefore legal until the group is completely eliminated, requiring no additional legislation or authority to remain in the country.
The Trump legal finding was spelled out in two letters released by the undersecretaries for policy at the State and Defense departments. They were in response to requests made by Senator Time Kaine of Virginia who has for several years been asking the White House under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump to clarify what legal authority has permitted it to base 2,000 American soldiers in Syria without any declaration of war, any United Nations authorization or any invitation by the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Kaine has cited the restrictions imposed by the War Powers Act of 1973, which permits a president to use military force in an emergency situation but after 60 days it is necessary to go to Congress for approval.
The State Department letter heightened the ambiguity of the US position with its explanation that “The United States does not seek to fight the government of Syria or Iran or Iranian-supported groups in Iraq or Syria. However, the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend US, coalition, or partner forces…”
There are a number of problems with the White House justification to stay in Syria, starting with the fact that al-Qaeda and ISIS are not in any way associated and might best be described as rivals or even enemies, rendering the whole AUMF argument irrelevant. In addition, the reason for American forces being in Syria at all has been variously described by senior administration officials. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been busy emphasizing that a prolonged stay is needed to block the resurgence of ISIS and also to prevent the Syrian government from retaking areas currently occupied by American-supported rebel groups. He curiously describes such areas freed from government control as “liberated.” He has also stated that the US will stay in place to put pressure on Bashar al-Assad to step down, i.e. regime change.
Tillerson uses the example of Libya to support his argument, observing that Libya was not occupied and “stabilized” by the nations that combined to overthrow the government of Muammar Ghaddafi. He has also cited President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw US forces from Iraq as a contributing factor in the rise of ISIS, apparently unaware that American military was forced to leave by the Iraqi government.
But last Friday President Trump sent a different signal, stating during the press conference with the Australian Prime Minister that “We’re there for one reason: to get ISIS and get rid of ISIS, and to go home. We’re not there for any other reason and we’ve largely accomplished our goal.”
There is considerable spin being generated by the Administration to support its claims. Nevertheless, it should be accepted that the Syrian regime of al-Assad is nearly universally recognized to be legitimate and sovereign in its own territory, a fact that is even acknowledged by the United States, which is, at the same time, supporting rebels seeking to overthrow that government. And the US intention to maintain a continued presence minus any viable al-Qaeda threat in the country is completely illegal under both domestic and international law.
In short, the continued United States presence in Syria bears all the hallmarks of yet another US policy wrapped in top level ambiguity that is a failure even before it starts. Not only illegal, it is impractical, with 2,000 US advisers spread thin supporting Kurdish proxies who are already heavily engaged fighting the Turks. Eventually Washington will become weary of the effort and leave. May that day come soon.