Tim Kaine: U.S. strikes on Syrian forces ‘completely illegal’

Sens. Tim Kaine, center, and Jeff Flake talk about their introduction of a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS.
Sen. Tim Kaine, center, and Sen. Jeff Flake talk about their introduction of a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on Wednesday sharply condemned U.S. strikes on Syrian regime forces — like the shoot-down of a military jet over the weekend — as “completely illegal.”

“I think the military action that is being taken against Syrian government assets is completely illegal,” Kaine said in an interview with Yahoo News on Sirius XM’s politics channel, POTUS.

There have been four known instances of U.S. forces firing on Syrian government targets in recent weeks, including the early April cruise missile strike in retaliation for the government’s use of chemical weapons. Over the weekend, a U.S. Navy fighter shot down a Syrian warplane. The Pentagon says it has legal authority to act under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed after the 9/11 attacks, which effectively permitted the invasion of Afghanistan and global efforts to stamp out al-Qaida. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama cited that legislation as the legal justification for the global war on terrorism.

Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bluntly disagreed with the Trump administration’s position.

“The 2001 authorization said we can take action against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Nobody claims that Syria was a perpetrator. Nobody claims that they are connected to al-Qaida. In fact, they’re battling against al-Qaida in Syria,” Kaine countered. “So I think this is a completely unlawful use of power.”

Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, also blamed “political cowardice” as a factor in congressional resistance to debating and voting to authorize the nearly three-year war on the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in places like Syria.

“Part of this is, in my view, political cowardice — not wanting to be on the record on a war vote,” Kaine said.

Previous attempts to push Congress to debate and authorize the escalating but undeclared war on the terrorist army in Syria and Iraq have fallen short, in large part due to politics. Clinton’s fate in the 2008 Democratic primaries, when her vote in favor of the 2002 AUMF against Iraq became one of Barack Obama’s most potent weapons, haunts Democrats. And Republicans preferred to criticize Obama’s handling of the conflict from the sidelines without taking any steps that might make them co-owners of the strategy.

Kaine and Sen. Jeff Flake, R.-Ariz., have written a new AUMF to cover ISIS and other extremist groups.

Kaine, who has tried since mid-2014 to get Congress to debate and vote on a new AUMF, said he thinks the political moment might be right to get lawmakers to act.

“This has been enormously frustrating,” Kaine acknowledged. But President Trump’s November victory has revived interest in the discussion.

“Any change in administration is kind of an opportunity to look anew at the strategy,” he said.

But lawmakers are “starting to get nervous” about Trump’s use of military force, Kaine said.

“We haven’t heard the strategy about ISIS. We don’t have a strategy about Afghanistan. We’ve now taken action against the government of Syria and their military without a strategy about that,” Kaine said. “So we’re starting to worry about the 2001 authority just being used carte blanche all over the place by this administration, and I think that provides some additional impetus to get this right.

Flake and Kaine’s measure, which repeals both the 2001 AUMF and the 2002 AUMF allowing Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, would explicitly authorize making war on ISIS, al-Qaida and the Taliban, as well as “associated forces,” to be defined by the administration and Congress. The legislation would expire after five years.

Turning to another foreign policy issue, Kaine worried that the U.S. standoff over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs was “definitely worsening.”

Trump apparently agrees, though he gave credit to China for trying to assist.

Kaine said he would back the Trump administration if it chose to punish Chinese firms that do business with North Korea in violation of international sanctions measures.

The Chinese have the most leverage to curb North Korean behavior, Kaine said, but he noted that “they’ve been unwilling, unable or some combination of both to really effectively do that.”

“I would support the administration in taking those tougher steps,” Kaine said.

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