Trump aides say U.S. forces can legally stay in Syria, Iraq indefinitely

Olivier Knox <>

Chief Washington Correspondent


Yahoo News <>•February 22, 2018

WASHINGTON — President Trump
<> has all the legal
authority he needs to keep U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq indefinitely, the
Pentagon and State Department said in a pair of letters released on
Thursday. The letters also warned that the United States reserves the right
to take military action to defend its anti-ISIS allies in Syria,
potentially setting the stage for new clashes with regime forces and their
Russian partners.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to whom the letters were addressed, sharply
criticized the administration’s reasoning and said in a statement that
Trump risks “acting like a king by unilaterally starting a war.”

Borrowing arguments first advanced by the Obama administration, the
Pentagon and State Department argued that the undeclared war on ISIS — and
the presence of some 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria and 5,200 more in Iraq — is
legal under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) and the
2002 AUMF that set the stage for the invasion of Iraq. In late January, the
Trump administration signaled that it would not seek a new vote
to authorize the mission in Syria.

Like Obama, Trump contends that, because of its origins as an al-Qaida
offshoot, the so-called Islamic State is covered by the 2001 legislation.
The 2002 AUMF gave the president the power to use force to confront “the
continuing threat posed by Iraq.”

“Now the Trump administration is going even further, claiming that the 2001
AUMF also allows the U.S. military to strike pro-Assad forces in areas
devoid of ISIS to protect our Syrian partners who seek Assad’s overthrow,”
Kaine said Thursday. “It is clear the Trump administration is crossing a
constitutional line.”

While the U.S.-led coalition has routed ISIS and shattered its claims to a
caliphate, the Pentagon said in its letter that the terrorist group has
morphed into a dangerous “insurgency” and that U.S. forces need to remain
in both countries to ensure its “permanent defeat.”

“Just as when we previously removed U.S. forces prematurely, the group will
look to exploit any abatement in pressure to regenerate capabilities and
reestablish local control of territory,” David Trachtenberg, the deputy
undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote to Kaine.

Tim Kaine; Donald Trump. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: Susan
Walsh/AP, Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“The United States does not seek to fight the Government of Syria or Iran
or Iranian-supported groups in Iraq or Syria,” Assistant Secretary of State
for Legislative Affairs Mary Waters said in her letter to Kaine. “However,
the United States will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate
force to defend U.S., Coalition, or partner forces engaged in operations to
defeat ISIS and degrade al-Qa’ida.”

The United States struck forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar Assad
several times in 2017, notably striking an airfield in April
in what Washington described as a response to the regime’s use of chemical
weapons against civilians. More recently, a U.S. counterattack reportedly
killed Syrian forces but also Russian mercenaries

Kaine, who has tried for years to get his colleagues to debate and vote on
authorizing the war against ISIS, warned in January
that the U.S. mission in Syria was evolving and risked putting American
forces on a collision course with regime troops and their Russian backers.

Kaine outlined his concerns a day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid
out plans for an open-ended presence
in Syria.

In remarks at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Tillerson said U.S.
forces would stay in the war-racked nation to ensure ISIS does not
reemerge, but also to set the stage for Assad’s removal from power through
political means and to contain Iranian influence.

Iran has stepped up what America considers its destabilizing activities,
including support for Assad and extremist groups, since the death of its
archenemy Saddam Hussein and in the aftermath of the 2015 nuclear deal
Tehran signed with great powers including the United States. The Trump
administration has vowed to confront the Islamic Republic more forcefully.

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