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November 9, 2015

Obama's escalation in Syria

Dr. Stephen Zunes

President Obama’s announcement that he would send up to 50 U.S. Special Forces to "train, advise and assist" armed militia fighting forces of the so-called “Islamic State” in Syria marks an escalation in U.S. military involvement in that country.

It also raises some serious legal, political, strategic, ethical, and constitutional questions and may open the way to a far larger and dangerous military entanglements in the future. Despite the absence of the requisite approval of Congress, the United States has been engaged in regular airstrikes in that country for more than a year as well as arming, training, and funding “moderate” rebel groups with little strategic gain to show for it.

On at least sixteen occasions, President Obama assured the American people that, despite increased U.S. military involvement in Syria, there would be “no boots on the ground.” It was assumed there would be exceptions for situations such as rescuing a downed pilot, or a short-term special commando operation such as destroying critical targets or rescuing hostages.

Obama’s announcement, however, means that for the first time there will be U.S. troops on the ground on an ongoing basis.  The hope is that the elite forces will act as “force multipliers” by being embedded in what they hope to be a pro-democratic, multi-ethnic unit and by coordinating their operations with well-established Kurdish militia.

Given the  limited nature of the intervention, the small number of troops involved, and the perfidious nature of the ISIS enemy, many traditional critics of U.S. military involvement overseas are not raising objections.  These U.S. advisors might even make a positive difference: Unlike the Syrian regime and the U.S.-backed forces of the Iraqi regime—which have engaged in major human rights abuses, have little support in ISIS-controlled areas, and have often proved to be an ineffective fighting force—these American soldiers will be working with popular Kurdish militia which have repeatedly proven themselves in battles against ISIS.

However, from Vietnam to Somalia to Afghanistan, Americans have seen what were supposed to have been limited engagements escalate into long, bloody, and costly wars. The Pentagon has made clear that this is an open-ended mission, and the administration has not ruled out sending in additional forces at a later date.

Recent decades have shown that the more the United States has become involved militarily in the Middle East, the more violent and destabilized the region has become and the less secure the United States and its interests have become.

During the past fifteen months, the U.S. has deployed 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and has engaged in more than 6,000 air strikes in the fight against ISIS, but Congress has still not voted on whether to authorize this latest U.S. military intervention. Even with last week’s announced escalation, Congress has failed to live up to its constitutional responsibilities.

Obama did submit a proposed authorization for the use of military force earlier this year. Since many Democrats thought it was not restrictive enough, and Republicans thought it was too restrictive, it never passed. Despite this, U.S. involvement has not only continued, but increased.

President Obama claims that due to previous Congressional resolutions following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the October 2002 resolution approving the invasion of Iraq, he does not actually need such authorization. However, the former resolution was only in regard to Al Qaida (which actually opposes ISIS) and the latter was in regard to the long-deposed Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution, which bars a president from engaging U.S. forces in a hostile situation for more than 90 days unless Congress approves the deployment, should have prevented Obama’s escalation. However, it appears that a bipartisan effort has effectively shredded this landmark piece of legislation which grew out of popular opposition to the Vietnam War. 

So, whether or not one thinks this might be a case where US military intervention might be justified, the bottom line is that it is illegal, a threat to the Constitution, and a very dangerous precedent.

Dr. Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and program director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.