ISIS used to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, and the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) covers al-Qaeda. This was the initial legal justification for US deployments in Iraq and Syria. But now that ISIS is defeated, and the Pentagon says troops are staying, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has asked the administration what the legal pretext is for permanent post-ISIS war.
New letters from the State and Defense Departments lay out the case, such as it is. The arguments in both letters are very similar. The 2002 AUMF for Iraq doesn’t have any caveats. It just says Iraq is a threat, and that means the US can do whatever they want to, with, or in Iraq. Syria, where the US is not only not invited, but troops are said to be there to advance regime change, is a lot trickier.
The argument is that because ISIS still sort of exists, the US can keep troops in Syria just in case ISIS becomes a serious threat, and while there, any time Syria forces get kind of close, the US can attack them “in self-defense.”
Both letters confirmed the US is making no attempts to claim attacking Syria’s government is covered directly by either AUMF. Rather, the AUMF was enough to get the US troops there in the first place, and having gotten them there, fighting Syrian forces who don’t want them there only comes naturally. With regard to the April 2017 attack on Syria with cruise missiles, the State Department argued the Constitution gives the president authority to do that if he thinks it’s in the national interest.
Sen. Kaine said Thursday he believes the administration is crossing “a constitutional line” with its claims, in claiming that even though Syria regime change isn’t included in either AUMF the US can still do that.
This may be the latest argument for Congress to revisit the AUMFs, and repeal them. They are both clearly being broadly over-interpreted over 15 years after the fact, and will clearly keep being used by administrations to justify more wars.