A continuing debate among American politicians, academicians, and media people about the indirect confrontation between the US and Iran in Syria, in the aftermath of the late August attacks and counter-attacks there, has been less about the attacks and more about why there were American troops in Syria in the first place.
The debate revealed that many Americans thought that the troops had left Syria a long time ago, after the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, aka Daesh.
In late August, several American soldiers were wounded and some fighters described by the Pentagon as “suspected Iran-backed militants” were killed.
The Pentagon said that several rockets landed inside the perimeter of Mission Support Site (MSS), known as Conoco, in northeast Syria, followed by another attack on a nearby MSS, known as Green Village.
Both have been run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Kurdish-led group.
The attacks come a day after the Pentagon had announced that, in the Deir Alzoor oil-rich province that borders Iraq, US forces carried out raids on groups linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and that the raids were ordered by President Joe Biden. They were a direct response to another attack, two weeks earlier, on Al-Tanf US military base in southern Syria, near the border with Jordan.
Following are three American opinions, from their writers’ tweets, websites, and statements to the media:
First, “The US will never normalize relations with Syria’s Assad,” argued Brett McGurk, who served in senior national security positions under presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, and is currently the Deputy Assistant to President Biden and the National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.
Second, “It is all about War Powers,” argued Democrat Senator Tim Kaine, who for years has been, not necessarily opposing US wars overseas, but arguing that no president should send troops into war without an explicit authorization from Congress – and the US interventions in both Iraq and Syria were not.
Third, “US leaves Syria now,” said Daniel Larison, editor at the online "Antiwar" magazine, which describes itself as "devoted to non-interventionism and as opposing imperialism and war.”
Brett McGurk: “No to Assad’s Syria”
“For many years I have been advocating that Syrian President Assad should have been gone a long time ago, and that if that had happened earlier, as I had called for, Syria would have avoided its civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions …
Last January, addressing the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I repeated that the US will 'never' normalize ties with Assad. I was responding to moves made by countries in the Middle East to reconcile ties with Assad after a decade of war and being isolated.
I said; ‘We do not support normalization with the Assad regime. We are never going to normalize with the Assad regime. We have been very clear with that.’
And I referred to a letter from members of Congress that was sent to President Biden, which raised concerns that several of Washington's allies in the Middle East are continuing to normalize relations with Assad without any meaningful pushback from the US …
I believe that those countries have recognized the reality of the conflict as it exists now, and are trying to protect and pursue their interests. But there should be distinctions made between security agreements with Syria's neighbors and normalization.
For example, if Jordan, a neighbor, wants to discuss border security with Syria, obviously we're not going to say ‘no.’ And that is very different from normalization with the Assad regime. And I think we ought to draw that distinction when we have these conversations …
For those who do not know, or do not remember, I resigned over former President Trump’s decision to partially withdraw from Syria in 2019.
I said then, and repeat now, that we should not end our alliance with (Kurdish) YPG International. Not only because it is morally wrong, but also, because it will endanger our own national security, and we will come around and regret it …”
Senator Kaine: “War Powers”
“For years, I have been pushing for Congress to repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for Iraq, and replace the open-ended 2001 authorization of wars overseas (after the 9/11 attacks) …
Of course, I support defending our troops when they come under fire, as did my [Democrat] colleagues. House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith called it a ‘self-defense operation’ that shows the U.S. can respond swiftly to terrorism threats around the world. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi lauded Biden for what she said was ‘a necessary, proportionate measure to defend U.S. personnel.’
But, I and many of my [Democrat] colleagues, have also been alarmed, and continue to believe that the Congress should authorize the use of force overseas — even when the strikes are retaliatory.
While I believe President Biden acted to protect American troops and citizens in line with his authority as Commander in Chief, this strike is yet another reminder that Congress should take more seriously its role and responsibilities in matters of war and conflict …
Last year, after similar attacks and counter-attacks in Syria, I said that the American people deserve to hear the Administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress.
Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional, absent extraordinary circumstances. Congress must be fully briefed on this matter expeditiously.
Last year, I introduced a bipartisan legislation to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq and replace the open-ended 2001 AUMF with a narrower authorization – I am determined to continue this fight…”
Daniel Larison: “Out of Syria”
“Keeping American troops in Syria has been a serious mistake that multiple administrations have failed to correct …
The longer that U.S. forces illegally remain in that country, the more likely it is that one of these clashes will result in casualties that could have been avoided. The Biden administration may be reluctant to withdraw troops from another country after what happened during the Afghanistan withdrawal, but their continued presence in Syria makes them targets and does nothing to make the United States more secure …
Bottom line: The risk to U.S. forces in Syria is increasing, and there are no discernible benefits from keeping them where they are that justify taking that risk. Contrary to what Biden has said, the U.S. is still at war in Syria, but it shouldn’t be and it doesn’t have to be.
As we know, American troops in Iraq and Syria have been coming under fire many times in tit-for-tat exchanges for several years dating back to the Trump administration.
Even if one accepted the official line that U.S. troops are simply there to fight ISIS, Congress never authorized that mission, either. If there is a military mission that cries out for a war powers challenge from Congress, it is the one in Syria.
It would be wise for the Biden administration to remove all U.S. forces from Syria as soon as possible.
Ideally, Biden should do the same for U.S. troops still in Iraq. Keeping troops in Syria makes no sense in terms of protecting the United States or its treaty allies, and it only puts them at risk for an ill-defined mission that Congress never approved.
Withdrawing from Syria would make good on the president’s commitment to end our country’s endless wars, and it would eliminate the chance of new incidents that could spiral into a larger conflict.
If U.S. forces stay in Syria, it is probably just a matter of time before American troops are seriously injured or killed, and there is no good reason to take that chance….”