Thursday March 1, 2018
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…”