The Trump Administration Is Pursuing Regime Change in Syria Under the Guise of Fighting Terrorism

15 years after the start of the war in Iraq, the Executive is still abusing our Constitution.

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SGT. MATTHEW CALLAHAN/UPI/Newscom

In January, in a public address at a Washington think tank, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attempted to explain the significant shift in the Trump administration's Syria policy now that the Islamic State terrorist group was been pushed into smaller and smaller pockets of terrain.

Keeping ISIS contained so it doesn't regenerate, Tillerson said, was only a fifth of the battle. Washington will also drastically expand into far-reaching objectives: assisting with post-conflict reconstruction; keeping U.S. troops in Syria until Bashar al-Assad is removed from power; combatting Iranian influence; and creating the conditions for millions of Syrian refugees to finally return to their homes.

If you were wondering what legal authority the administration is using to underpin this increasingly broad mission, you are not alone. The Trump administration has been suspiciously quiet about the legal question, perhaps recognizing how flimsy their legal arguments are. When administration officials are pressed for details, they cite the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as catchall legal authority and an expansive view of the president's authority to commit troops into a conflict.

The Trump White House, of course, is not the only administration to use the 2001 AUMF is this way. An authorization that was designed to retaliate against the group that perpetrated the 9/11 attack (al-Qaeda) and the quasi-government that harbored them (the Taliban) long ago turned into a legal elastic band. Terrorist organizations around the world that have only minimal or symbolic connections with Osama bin Laden's original group of jihadists are categorized as Al-Qaeda affiliates and therefore targetable under the 2001 resolution. Never mind that the word "affiliate" does not appear once in the text of that 60-word resolution—or that some of those affiliates are not really affiliates at all, but rather local extremists with hyper-local concerns hoping to exploit the al-Qaeda or ISIS brand to attract cash and recruits.

The Trump administration, however, is unique in one important respect: It is the first to use a resolution passed over 16 years ago as legal justification against targets—the Assad regime and Iran—that had nothing whatsoever to do with the al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.

The White House is cloaking a policy of regime change in Syria under the guise of fighting terrorism and preventing the Islamic State from returning—a policy that the American people neither want or were consulted on. The United States is dangerously setting new missions that have absolutely no connection at all to combatting ISIS.

There was once a time when the president and his national security team would need to make the case to lawmakers and the American people before deploying U.S. ground troops on an open-ended mission. The American people would be given the opportunity to weigh in and members of Congress would be provided the chance to ask questions and debate amongst themselves on whether removing another govenrment in the Middle East would be any more wise than previous regime change disasters in Iraq and Libya. Millions of politically active Americans, having seen with their own eyes over the last decade and a half how little gain the United States receives from toppling governments in countries we barely understand, would flood Capitol Hill with phone calls and register their concerns and warnings. Unfortunately, that is not how the process works anymore—the executive branch need not concern themselves with such annoyances.

Why go back to Congress for additional statutory approval and follow the Constitution when you can follow the path of least resistance?

The executive branch is only part of the problem. An even greater share of the blame lies on the shoulders of Congress, an institution that has deferred ever more war-making power to the president in order to avoid the most solemn constitutional responsibility—taking a difficult war vote. While there are exceptions to the rule, the institution has been content with taking the White House's case for granted. Until the congressional leadership is forced to hold the executive branch accountable on matters of war and peace, the status-quo will continue, and the balance will only get more lopsided.

A debate over military action, particularly one centered on a fourth regime change operation in the Middle East in 15 years, should not be a discussion confined to law schools and think-tank conference rooms.

The architects of the Constitution and the founders of America's system of government were highly cognizant of the dangers of an imperial presidency, where a single man alone could determine when and where the nation goes to war. To prevent the president from exercising the powers of a monarch or a dictator, the Constitution placed the decision to declare war in the hands of the legislative branch. Transitioning the country from peace to war was so consequential and so vital to our republic that the American people, through their elected representatives, were judged to be the ultimate decision-makers on the issue.

Regrettably, we have arrived in a place where the executive branch is the sovereign and Congress is merely a peanut gallery only interested in these important matters when there is political gain to be made.

But what Congress gives, Congress can take away. And if there was ever a time for the legislative branch to reclaim its authority and stop the decades of an ever more powerful executive, it is now. If members won't reenter the game and fulfil their constitutional obligations when 2,000 U.S. troops are conducting an open-ended deployment in northeastern Syria with an impossible set of missions, then the American people can only conclude this Congress will never do its job.

NEXT: The Man Who Counts Bodies in the Desert

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  1. “The Trump administration has been suspiciously quiet about the legal question, perhaps recognizing how flimsy their legal arguments are.”

    Trump did say this back in 2016 “I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is,” -the Republican nominee said at an NBC-hosted commander-in-chief forum in New York.

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  2. When administration officials are pressed for details, they cite the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as catchall legal authority and an expansive view of the president’s authority to commit troops into a conflict.

    Like the accusation of racism or the charge of Breach of Peace, the utility of those AUMF’s are boundless. And using them is when Donal Trump truly became president.

    1. Unlike when W Bush used them to truly become president. Unlike when Obama used then to truly become president.

      Its why only a Declaration of War that specifies who the enemy is and what the goal is.

      Seventy-Seventh Congress of the United States of America;
      At the First Session Begun and held at the City of Washington, on Friday, the third day of January, 1941.
      JOINT RESOLUTION Declaring That a State of War Exists Between The Government of Germany and the Government and the People of the United States and Making Provisions To Prosecute The Same
      Whereas the Government of Germany has formally declared war against the Government and the people of the United States of America: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Government of Germany which has thus been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared; and the President is hereby authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Government of Germany; and, to bring the conflict to a successful termination, all of the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.

      1. How quaint.

      2. I believe Fist is being facetious.

        1. How can you tell?

          I mean, I can tell when he is being fistetious but not facetious.

      3. At the First Session Begun and held at the City of Washington, on Friday, the third day of January, 1941.

        That really had me confused for a bit. The “session” of Congress was begun on January 3rd, but this resolution was presumably introduced in December.

        1. That session of Congress was sworn in Jan 1941 because of the November 1940 elections.

          Congress still describes which session it is in legislation.

      4. I miss plain language like that. Unfortunately, while patriots loaded up to serve overseas, our beaureaucracies were infiltrated, knowing the chaos of war planning and execution creates blind spots at the polls. I marvel at that period, because the american left had all outward appearances of solidarity with the US, but they arrived at their will to fight Hitler mainly on account of him being labeled as a “right winger” by Stalin – our national security was happenstance to them. What ensued was not unlike crashing a wedding party – everyone heads for the bar, and it all appears normal until it’s nearly over. McCarthy was shouted down for effectively demanding to see invites, and we haven’t had any real oversight since then.
        The more I think about it, the more wrong Tom Brokaw was in writing The Greatest Generation. No, it was the WW1 era that was the greatest generation: they fought, then returned to a state of normalcy such that their own children were able to defend the nation once more. Looking at the WW2 generation, their kids started spitting on each other in Vietnam then began to tear the nation down with a fury that continues today. Fruit of the tree and all that…

  3. Congress authorized spending for a palace guard (Secret Service) to guard the POTUS.

    Obviously, that is authorization to gather up enough armed forces to conquer the Milky Way Galaxy, and then go DO IT!!!! Because the POTUS will NOT feel TRULY secure, till He rules the Galaxy! And Beyond!!!

  4. The question that bothers me the most is why we seem to be going after the most secular, Westernized regimes in the Middle East. A lot of the opposition to Assad isn’t necessarily because he’s a brutal dictator but because he isn’t a sufficiently Islamic brutal dictator. Assad’s Syria has a significant Christian and Jewish population, and the devout Muslims don’t like the fact that the government protects them. Bring down Assad and you’re going to see religious pogroms driving out any Christians and Jews they can’t kill.

    1. “Bring down Assad and you’re going to see religious pogroms driving out any Christians and Jews they can’t kill.”

      This is a FEATURE, not a BUG!!! Why? Because the resulting pogroms can then be used to justify the USA taking over the rest of the Galaxy!

    2. “The question that bothers me the most is why we seem to be going after the most secular, Westernized regimes in the Middle East”

      I’d call Assad secular, maybe, because religion would be an alternate power center, and he won’t tolerate those. But “westernized”? Not in any positive sense.

    3. “The question that bothers me the most is why we seem to be going after the most secular, ”

      Syria is far too secular for America’s tastes. We prefer theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, our two most treasured partners in the region.

      1. Such a patently dumb comment. Let’s just forget that we propped up an explicitly secular (authoritarian) leader in Iran who was dumped for religious freaks and ignore the support we throw to Egypt who dumped their own religious freaks into jails and bodybags.

        Turning a phrase does not make you clever when what you post is horseshit.

    4. Uhhh… this is a first. Assad the paragon of secularism.

      Dude is just a dictator with friends we don’t like. No more, no less.

  5. keeping U.S. troops in Syria until Bashar al-Assad is removed from power; combatting Iranian influence; and creating the conditions for millions of Syrian refugees to finally return to their homes.

    I talked to some military dudes, and they said: “fuck that bullshit”.

  6. Nice piece, but unfortunately we need to blame the American people as well. Conservatives will generally support “toughness” without asking for much definition, while liberals simply don’t want to talk about foreign affairs at all. Congress takes no responsibility for foreign affairs, and voters never punish this irresponsibility.

  7. I see we haven’t learned anything over the past couple decades.

  8. If Viet Nam was “Nixon’s war” then why can’t Syria be Trump’s?

    1. It can be. Trump is winning this war though. Are you sure, you want to give Trump credit for winning a war?

      Technically Obama was president when we got involved in Syria but it was more limited than Trump putting more ground forces in.

      Obama never won in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Niger, Somalia, or Pakistan. All while being the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize.

      1. Nobel prize… what a joke: it appears to be given out solely on the basis of whoever does the most to destabilize the world. They may get it wrong on occasion, but I think it holds true. On that note, lets re-label the hapless enterprise as the World Political Vandalism Award – it fits Obama to a T.

    2. That’s a fair question. I suppose we want to keep the busts of Kennedy and Obama spotless.

      1. Depends on who you mean by ‘we.’ But otherwise spot on.

  9. I’ll note his ORIGINAL plan was to let Russia deal with it.

    Everybody lost their shit over that.

    1. Trump also now knows that Russia’s #1 goal is to establish a warm water port that is not chocked by straights that can be blocked by military forces.

      1. Still have to go through Gibraltar my dude. There’s no way to get a warm water port that isn’t choked by straights over there.

        We should still let Russia deal with it. Assad isn’t that bad, and is by far the preferable outcome for the American people. He’s the only guy that can legitimately rule Syria and simultaneously keep the Muslim population from murdering everyone who isn’t a professed Sunni.

        1. Yep. A Russian naval base in Syria would be a huge waste of resources.

          Otherwise, Assad is that bad. The reason the Russians have never been down with regime change in Syria is that previously they rightly understood that that meant it wouldn’t of their choosing.

          That’s all they really want, the ability to do the choosing.

      2. But Global Warming! Bailey think it’s Settled Science. Can’t them Russkies read? The entire North Pole is ice-free the way Gore predicted and all Rooshian ports are warm enough to poach eggs. Aren’t they?

  10. “American people”. Which people? So if you don’t agree with this article, you are not part of the “American people”? What, you lose your citizenship or something? Aren’t politicians technically part of the “American people” too? I highly doubt that most Americans care, or even know much about foreign policy. Besides aren’t those the same people who voted for Obama and Trump? Minus the ones who didn’t vote for them, of course, and I guess as a result lost their US citizenship.

    I have a dream where journalists and politicians don’t try to convince others that they are right, by saying that the “people” support them. It just sounds like communism to me. Instead of treating people like individuals, you are treating them like a collective. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the history books. I know that reason.com has almost irrational fear of government planning, and I understand that to some degree, but appealing to the “people” doesn’t make much logical sense. Most people don’t know or don’t care. That is how Obama and Trump got elected in the first place. /rant

    1. “It just sounds like communism to me.”

      Sounds like?

  11. “The Trump Administration Is Pursuing Regime Change ”

    Is it really necessary to drag Trump into this? He doesn’t seem to have any more control over the military than Obama did.

    1. He can apply some influence against endless war by not appointing John war-everywhere-all-the-time Bolton to his cabinet as NSA director.

    2. Regime change was Obama’s objective. That’s why he set up the gun running operation out of Benghazi.

  12. Oh goody, a Desert Storm. More bombing people in Ottoman territory on the other side of the planet. What could possibly go wrong?

  13. I recall one important thing: tipping over Libya caused a contagious reaction in Syria. It set the arab street on fire to establish a ring of fire around Israel [which democrats seemed to love, based on their silence] Then, Obama responded with every measure possible to ensure nothing could be resolved – anarchy was to rule the streets, as his penchant for vandalism stretched from domestic issues to foreign peoples. He only bucked up to do something halfway concrete after Putin ordered his own actions, which may have been nothing more than cementing an arms deals in place. I don’t know where that part of the world is headed, but if its away from being a petri dish for terrorists sheltered by bad US policy, I hope we don’t forget one important thing: the cult of death there is very, very good at rebranding and popping up under “new management”. Kerry went from ISIS, to ISIL, to Daesh… all the same goons, but he appeared to either not notice or worse… was giving them room to reorganize in the wake of Bin Laden getting capped. Based on his gift of untraceable cash to Iran on top of a big money deal, odds are it was the latter.

  14. Great. Can’t we just nuke the whole middle east and get it all over with quick?

    We should just be letting those people kill each other to their hearts content. If we just stopped fucking with them, they’d probably mostly leave us alone too. Win-win!

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