Biden’s Syria Strikes Fuel New Debate on War Powers

Democrats in Congress signaled they were uneasy with the move and are demanding answers from the White House.

President Joe Biden walks toward reporters at the White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks toward reporters on on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Feb. 16. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s directive to carry out airstrikes in Syria has fueled new debates about the president’s war powers authorities, with top Democratic allies on Capitol Hill voicing unease about military action without prior congressional approval. 

Biden authorized strikes on Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria on Thursday, marking the first significant military action of his presidency. Almost immediately, senior Democratic lawmakers began pressuring the White House for answers on what legal justifications were used to carry out the strikes, reviving questions on a president’s constitutional war powers authorities that became a fixture of former President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy battles with Capitol Hill. 

“I am very concerned that last night’s strike by U.S. forces in Syria puts our country on the path of continuing the forever war instead of ending it,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders in a statement. “This is the same path we’ve been on for almost two decades. For far too long administrations of both parties have interpreted their authorities in an extremely expansive way to continue military interventions across the Middle East region and elsewhere. This must end.”

Biden’s response to renewed pressure from Capitol Hill, congressional aides said, will be an important bellwether of how he manages relations with Congress and whether he accedes to pressure from the left flank of his party on foreign policy. 

Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy also issued statements signaling unease at the strikes, with Kaine calling on the administration to fully brief Congress on the matter “expeditiously.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden briefed congressional leaders on the action last night and has been briefing lawmakers and congressional staffers today. “There will be a full classified briefing early next week at the latest,” she said in a statement. The White House did not respond to additional requests for comment.

During his four years in office, Trump fended off repeated attempts by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to pare back the president’s ability to carry out military operations without congressional approval. The political battles in Washington stemmed from debates about constitutional powers and struck at the heart of the murky ways that the United States has carried out military engagements in the Middle East for the past two decades.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday that Article II of the U.S. Constitution gave Biden “not only the authority but the obligation” to order the airstrikes. The Pentagon said it utilized two F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft in the strikes, which destroyed nine facilities used by Iran-backed militias along the border between Syria and Iraq, and rendered two more structures unusable. 

Sanders, Murphy, and Kaine have all backed bipartisan measures to repeal nearly two decade-old provisions authorizing expansive presidential war powers that date back to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Kaine in 2018 held up the confirmation of a senior Trump Middle East envoy for months over legal questions over Trump’s decision to order missile strikes in Syria during his first year in office. 

Now some of Trump’s staunchest critics in Congress say they want to hold Biden to the same standards. 

“I have inherent trust in the national security decision making of President Biden, and I know how seriously he takes Congress’s war making powers,” said Murphy. “But Congress should hold this administration to the same standard it did prior administrations, and require clear legal justifications for military action, especially inside theaters like Syria, where Congress has not explicitly authorized any American military action.”

Legal scholars say that Trump’s approach to war powers authorities leaves thorny and open-ended questions for the Biden administration to grapple with over the powers of the presidency, laid out in Article II of the Constitution. “The picture that emerges from Trump’s war powers reporting to Congress is one of an extraordinarily broad vision of the president’s authority to use force abroad without congressional authorization, and of a willingness to exploit loopholes in reporting requirements in a way that obscures information on the use of force from the public,” wrote Tess Bridgeman, a former legal advisor in the Obama administration’s National Security Council and co-editor in chief of Just Security

The U.S. strikes in Syria, reprisals for rocket attacks targeting U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq earlier this month, highlight Iran’s influence in the wider Middle East and its threat to U.S. troops through the use of proxy groups. It also underscores the highly charged tensions between Washington and Tehran even as the Biden administration works to revive Iran nuclear negotiations.

Some critics of Biden, including Republican lawmakers who sharply oppose the president’s efforts to open diplomatic negotiations with Iran, praised the airstrikes as a necessary response to Iranian aggression to deter future attacks.

“After several unanswered attacks against U.S. interests, I welcome the administration’s decision to authorize airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias operating in eastern Syria,” said Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We must not allow the Iranian regime to hide behind Iranian-supported militias that pose significant threats to U.S. national security interests.”

Meanwhile, some dovish Republicans criticized Biden’s decision to strike. “I condemn meddling in Syria’s civil war,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul tweeted on Friday. “I also condemn attacking a sovereign nation without authority.”

Some experts expect attacks from Iranian proxy forces to continue, even if Tehran agrees to reopen talks on curbing its nuclear weapons program with the United States and its European allies.

“The Biden team is learning that extending an olive branch to the regime in Tehran does not impact Iran’s objective of pushing the U.S. from the region, nor alter their methods for pursuing it,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, an expert with the Atlantic Council and a former senior National Security Council official in the Trump White House. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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