Are We About to Go to War in Syria?
There is a growing clamor in Washington, urging President Obama to strike Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces, which are currently massacring civilians in Aleppo with the help of Russia and Iran. Rebels supported by the U.S. -- as well as terrorists and extremist militias -- are being pushed out of the last urban bastion of the rebellion. This has renewed calls from Congress for the U.S. to take action.
We've heard this song before. But this time, it isn't only hawks like Senators McCain and Graham who are demanding action. Recent statements by several Democrats, including Jean Shaheen and Ben Cardin, suggest there may be a a bipartisan consensus emerging that President Assad must be denied a victory that would keep him in power, bolster Russia and Iran, and allow Assad to escape prosecution for his numerous war crimes.
Recognizing that any military action against the Syrian government would need buy-in from America’s elected representatives, the Obama administration correctly decided to ask Congress for a statutory authorization before the first missiles were fired in retaliation. Less than two weeks after the chemical attacks, it became obvious that congressional support simply wasn’t there for providing the White House with that kind of authority. All of this, despite heartfelt statements issued by members of Congress about standing up for international human rights and humanitarian law and the absolute necessity to hold a war criminal responsible. When it came time to vote, the votes for action simply weren’t there.
Over three years later, Obama faces a similar situation. This time, it isn’t large-scale chemical weapons attacks that are causing the angst in Washington but the heaviest bombardment of Aleppo, one of Syria’s largest cities, with an assortment of deadly conventional weapons. Exhortations are once more emanating from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill to do something, anything, to save the lives of men, women, and children. But would Congress actually authorize President Obama to take that military action, or would it once again cry from the sidelines without providing Obama with that authority?
Constitutional scholars will argue that the Commander-in-Chief has the power to decide what is important enough to the U.S. national security interest that it warrants sending U.S. soldiers and pilots into hostilities. They would be right: the War Powers Act grants the President the power to deploy military force without congressional approval for sixty days (and one thirty-day extension). If the White House doesn’t receive congressional authorization during that time, U.S. troops are required to suspend operations and withdraw from the conflict.
Syria, however, isn’t an ordinary conflict for Obama. It is a sectarian and ethnic conflict powered by regional proxies seeking to maximize their own influence. That is why Obama would likely, indeed must, ask the U.S. Congress for an authorization to use military force in the event that he comes to the conclusion that bombing Assad’s airfields and grounding his air-force is the only effective way to convince the Syrian regime to come back to the negotiating table with the opposition to strike a difficult but necessary power-sharing arrangement.
There's an even more important reason why Obama must get congressional approval before attacking Assad: if we're going to start World War III, it would be nice to have Congress on board.