In a prime-time address to the nation last Wednesday, President Barack Obama called for an increase in airstrikes, military aid efforts and an open and expanded role in aiding and training moderate Syrian rebels currently fighting both the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and radical Islamic terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS, also known by the acronym ISIL). The announcement expands the scope of United States’ efforts to combat ISIL in the region. Although the sentiment that the United States should work to defeat ISIL is unanimous among lawmakers, critics of the president were asking why it took him so long to intervene and why he’s not seeking congressional authorization.
Making good on his promise from Aug. 28 to develop a strategy for defeating ISIL, Obama laid out a general plan for conducting military operations against the terrorist organization and building a coalition of allies from Arab and European nations to help with the effort.
“First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense,” Obama said. “Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
The president stopped short of calling the new effort a war and reiterated his stance that there will be no American “boots on the ground” under any circumstance.
“… I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Obama said. “This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.
“American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. And that’s why I’ve insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.”
At the time of the president’s speech, Secretary of State John Kerry was already on the ground in in the area, speaking to leaders of United States’ Arab allies – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar – and encouraging them to join a coalition to assist the effort.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had high praise for the president’s speech and said that he agrees with Obama’s view that openly, rather than covertly, targeting ISIL and aiding moderate Syrian rebels will signal allies to join the fight.
“I think it’s critically important that Arab countries be [openly] involved in this, otherwise it could play into the hands of violent terrorists who would just use our presence as propaganda unless Arab and Muslim countries join it.”
Obama also said that his actions will not require congressional authorization, relieving Congress from a lengthy, pre-midterm election war powers debate. The administration asserted that the president will use the authorization that Congress gave President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002, which granted broad presidential authority to fight al-Qaida. Even some Democrats found this troubling, despite generally agreeing with the president’s actions.
“I support in principle the strategy that he outlined,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “I remain concerned about an open-ended military commitment, and I will seek better defined military objectives. The president would be on stronger ground in seeking national resolve and support to come to Congress for approval.”
Blumenthal was one of many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who were troubled by the open-ended use of an authorization granted more than a decade ago and that had unclear boundaries.
“One of the problems, I believe, with the authorization for force in 2001, is that it was unlimited in time, geography and in many ways in terms of the target. It was very broad and to be interpreted as a kind of open-ended declaration,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told reporters after a closed-door Senate briefing on Thursday by officials from the State Department, White House, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the intelligence community.
“Time is one of the possible limitations as long as it’s clear it can be renewed; the target, mission, who we’re after, and the means [should also be delineated],” said King. “I think there should be some more specific authorization, of a limited nature, along the lines that the president had in mind last night. I don’t think the White House would be opposed to such a resolution, but they are not asking for it.
“I think the fact that the White House isn’t asking for it doesn’t absolve the Congress from their responsibility to exercise their constitutional prerogative in terms of their commitment of this country to armed conflict.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who along with his closest Senate ally, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has been calling for the United States to intervene on behalf of moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, said that he was glad the president is inching toward his point of view. Graham also said that he supported a congressional resolution as it will allow for the president’s strategy to be vetted in greater detail.
“I want this to be successful, I really do,” Graham said. “I think that in seeking a congressional authorization, what that means is that all the issues are dealt with – whether in classified settings or in public settings – where you really drill down and actually challenge the people who are engaged in these kind of activities to really ensure that they have everything buckled down. Things are going to go wrong, let’s face it. I just think the administration would be so much wiser to seek an authorization and buy-in from Congress on the front end.”
After evidence surfaced in 2013 that pro-Assad forces in Syria used chemical weapons on rebel strongholds, President Obama ordered Secretary Kerry to spend a significant amount of his time between summer and fall of that year to convince Congress to give him an authorization that would allow the arming of the moderate Free Syrian Army. Yet, Kerry’s effort failed as lawmakers responded to polls indicating that most Americans opposed United States’ involvement.
A major problem for the administration then was proving that its intelligence could differentiate between moderate secular rebels and Islamic extremists already executing Syrian Christians and other minorities.
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) led the Tea Party effort to oppose that effort.
Speaking on the Senate floor in July 2013, Cruz expressed his strong opposition to arming the Syrian rebels, saying that it was too late, and that the United States would be arming al-Qaida affiliates.
Today, both Paul and Cruz support arming those rebels as the situation on the ground has gotten worse far worse.
“Some of the rebel factions might be sons of bitches,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), when asked if it was any safer to arm Syrian rebels now. “If they’re our sons of bitches, then you use intelligence to pick the guys who you think in the long term would be most in the U.S.’s interest. Obviously, we don’t try to equip radical ISIL factions, and I think for $30 billion a year, the intelligence community should be able to tell you who is who.”
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro
JNS.org contributed to this story.