Lawmakers fret over Syria strategy following strikes

Greg Nash

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on Tuesday expressed concern that the Trump administration has no clear outline for a larger U.S. strategy in Syria, despite a strike on the country last week in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on civilians.

President Trump and his defense officials have repeatedly stressed that the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remains the goal and focus of their strategy in the country. The strike, they say, was designed specifically to avoid further escalation that would drag the United States into the Syrian civil war.


Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford sought to answer lawmakers’ questions on the way ahead in the country while on Capitol Hill for House and Senate briefings on the air strikes.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), emerged from the classified session telling reporters “everything” in the briefing made him “more worried, not less.” Graham had advocated for Trump to destroy Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air force or even target Assad himself.

Rather, he said, the briefing confirmed for him that Trump is intent on withdrawing from Syria as soon as possible and that “there is no military strategy on the table” to deal with the influence of Russia and Iran inside Syria.

“It seems to me that the president is going to pull out of Syria as soon as he can, and I believe that ISIS can never be destroyed unless there is a credible holding force, and some Americans need to be part of that holding force or else we learn nothing from Iraq,” he said. “If you leave without an adequate holding force, they come back.”

Asked about a timeline for withdrawal, Graham said it’s “conditions based,” but “as soon as possible.”

The United States, along with allies the United Kingdom and France, launched 105 missiles Friday night at three targets related to Assad’s chemical weapons program.

The strike was in response to a suspected chemical attack launched by the Assad regime that killed at least 70 civilians in Douma, a suburb of the capital, Damascus.

Just days before the suspected chemical attack, however, Trump was pushing his military advisers to withdraw from Syria, where U.S. troops are fighting ISIS, as soon as possible.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said there was a discussion in his briefing on the larger strategy for the region, which focused on the State Department’s “efforts to try to hasten a peace process in Syria for chiefly the benefit of the Syrian people.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said the administration’s view for the future in Syria is solely focused on ISIS “and to not be involved” in the civil war.

Corker recently introduced an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) for the fight against ISIS and not against the Syrian regime. But he said that was not discussed during the briefing.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who called the strikes “illegal” and “reckless” on Friday, said the briefing did not convince him otherwise.

“We’re getting out of Syria, and then days later there are missile strikes. There’s a strategic set of contradictions,” Kaine added. “I definitely feel like the people who were briefing today have good sense of what they think it should be. It’s just that I don’t necessarily know if that’s what the president thinks it should be.” 

Kaine was also among several Democratic lawmakers that questioned Trump’s legal authority to carry out the strike.

“I don’t think the Article II justifies them,” Kaine said, referring to the president’s constitutional authority to use military force to protect the national interest from immediate threats.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said Trump’s current justification to strike Syria “allows the president to wage war anywhere, anytime, any place that he might want to, simply saying it’s in the national security interest. We can’t allow it.”

Thornberry, meanwhile, said there will always be a tension between the legislative and the executive branches about the power to use force.

“You will have a variety of opinions about what the limits of the president’s ability to use force without prior authorization from Congress is. My personal opinion is that this was within the president’s authority,” Thornberry said.

He added, however, that when it comes to sustained military effort within a country, “I believe that you do have to have approval of Congress.”

Rebecca Kheel contributed.

Tags AUMF Bob Corker chemical weapons Donald Trump James Mattis John Garamendi Lindsey Graham Mac Thornberry Military Syria Tim Kaine

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