President Trump does not think he needs new war-making authority from Congress regarding Syria, even as the U.S. mission there expands beyond the military campaign to wipe out ISIS, a senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday.
At a briefing organized by the White House, the official curtly dismissed whether the broader mandate for the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria meant that the administration needs a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). “No,” said the official, who took questions on condition that he not be named.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested last week that U.S. forces would stay in the strife-torn country for the foreseeable future, not only to finish off what remains of the Islamic State fighters, who established strongholds in Syria after the country descended into civil war, but also to help set the stage for President Bashar Assad’s departure and counter rising Iranian influence.
Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News during his just-completed trip to the Middle East that the United States would prevent Iran from filling a “vacuum” left by the rout of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“The United States of America and our allies are simply not going to let it happen,” Pence said.
It’s unclear just how Washington plans to make good on that promise. A decade before the Iran nuclear deal eased crippling sanctions on the so-called Islamic Republic, the U.S. removal of Saddam Hussein took out a major bulwark against Iranian influence, and the government in Baghdad has cultivated ties with leaders in Tehran. Assad relies on Iran’s patronage and battle-tested fighters taking on U.S.-backed rebels and other groups eager to topple the regime.
“We do have plans, we have a lot of options for things that we can do,” the anonymous official told reporters, without elaborating.
But the Trump aide played down prospects that U.S. forces would attack Iranians in Syria.
“These forces have the authority to defend themselves,” the official said. “It would be unwise to test them.”
Some lawmakers have warned the administration that the expanded mandate in Syria, including the shift to countering Iran, was “unacceptable,” absent a new vote in Congress.
The Trump administration’s legal argument appears to mirror the one made by President Barack Obama, who argued that ISIS grew out of al-Qaida, and as such was subject to the 2001 AUMF greenlighting military action against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. The Obama administration ultimately sent a new AUMF to Congress, which never acted on the proposal.
Asked later in the briefing what legal authority would permit U.S. troops to stay in Syria if and when ISIS is defeated, the official warned against “premature judgment” that the terrorist army’s rout means it can’t return.
“We don’t consider ISIS to be completely defeated,” the official said. “We’re confident we have the legal authority to do what we’re doing, we need to do.”
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