Right-Left Coalition Fails to End Illegal US War in Syria

March 9th, 2023 - by Ryan Grim / The Intercept & Bryant Harris / Defense News

Former Syrian ambassador Robert Ford, who once pushed for an end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, now backs a resolution to end the US occupation.

Gaetz, Progressive Caucus, Former Ambassador
Call for Withdrawal of US Troops in Syria

Ryan Grim / The Intercept

(March 7 2023) — The Obama Administration’s ambassador to Syria — a leading voice in favor of aggressively confronting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the time — is now backing an effort by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), to force US withdrawal from the country within 180 days.

Robert Ford argues in a letter to Congress in support of Gaetz’s legislation that the US mission has no clear objective. “After more than eight years of military operations in Syria there is no definition of what the ‘enduring’ defeat of ISIS would look like,” Ford writes in the letter, which was obtained by The Intercept and confirmed as authentic by Ford. “We owe our soldiers serving there in harm’s way a serious debate about whether their mission is, in fact, achievable.”

The resolution also has the support of former Obama ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, at the time an advocate of expansive support for the Syrian opposition. He now says it’s time to go.

On Tuesday evening, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, or CPC, circulated a message to its membership urging a yes vote, producing a serious bipartisan coalition. “This measure to remove unauthorized deployment of US Armed Forces in Syria unless a specific statutory authorization is enacted within six months is largely consistent with previous bipartisan efforts led by CPC Members to terminate such unauthorized military presence within one year, for which 130 House Democrats voted yes last year,” read the message to members.

The resolution is scheduled for a vote Wednesday afternoon.

An original version of Gaetz’s measure offered just 15 days for troops to leave Syria, but he amended it to six months in the hope of drawing real support. The new measure, a war powers resolution that is privileged on the House floor, would allow troops to stay longer if Congress debated on and authorized the intervention.

Gaetz’s introduction of the resolution, particularly with such a short timetable that would doom it to lopsided defeat, kicked off a flurry of lobbying to try to turn it into a bipartisan coalition, involving progressive groups like Just Foreign Policy and Demand Progress and conservative ones such as FreedomWorks, Concerned Veterans for America, and Citizens for Renewing America. The speed with which it is coming to the floor leaves little time for grassroots mobilization.

“The CPC has been leading on this front and nothing has changed. I wish Gaetz worked more closely with the coalition of groups that have been working on this and the CPC,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., deputy chair of the CPC, who worked with Gaetz to get the legislation to a place where Democrats could back it. “Nonetheless, I am a yes on the resolution.” Gaetz did not respond to a request for comment.

Ford had previously supported a 2021 legislative push by New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, whose amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act would have given the US one year to exit Syria. Bowman’s measure won the support of 21 Republicans and roughly half of the Democratic caucus.

Despite the rise of an anti-interventionist wing of the GOP, the votes to oppose American adventures overseas continue to come largely from Democrats. In July 2022, Bowman pushed for another floor vote, this time picking up 25 Republicans and winning the Democratic caucus 130-88.

Daily Kos and HuffPost ran whip counts ahead of a vote called for by Obama to authorize the use of force, pressuring progressives to vote no. HuffPost tallied 243 members of Congress planning to vote no or leaning no before Obama pulled the legislation from the floor.

In 2014, Ford resigned his position, frustrated that the Obama administration was not providing enough support to the opposition to, at minimum, force al-Assad to the negotiating table. The need to minimize US involvement undermined the purpose of that involvement, he argued.

In other words, go big or go home — and Ford is now arguing that US troops ought to go home and that the Gaetz measure is a vehicle to help make that happen. “And remember that ‘go big’ offers no guarantee of success,” he said when I asked if the idiom appropriately summed up his argument. “We went big in Iraq and had mixed results.”

Ford noted in his letter that leftist Kurdish forces in Syria, with US support, had claimed the last piece of ISIS territory in March 2019 and the Pentagon has assessed that ISIS now lacks the capacity to strike the US at home. Militias aligned with Iran have taken the opportunity of US presence in the region to launch attacks on American troops, who number roughly 900, not counting contractors.

The legal rationale for US occupation is dubious at best. With ISIS suppressed, the administration has suggested the purpose of the occupation is to act as a bulwark against Iran. The Washington Post previously reported:

The balance of power in Syria’s multisided conflict depends on the American presence. Where US troops retreat, American officials see an opening for the Syrian military or forces from Russia or Turkey to advance. Some US officials have stressed that the American deployment precludes Iranian forces from establishing a “land bridge” that would allow them to more easily supply weapons to their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.

“It’s about keeping a balance,” said one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

In fact, Iran already has a direct “land bridge” through eastern Syria to Lebanon; the US occupation merely adds some time to the Iranian truckers’ journey. More to the point, said Ford, there is no authorization to deploy troops overseas to counter Iran. “The 2001 authorization of the use of military force was all about Al Qaeda and, to a secondary extent, the Taliban and Afghanistan,” he said. “It wasn’t about Iranian or pro-Iranian militias in eastern Syria.”

Ford argued that US withdrawal would facilitate the kind of negotiations needed to bring a measure of stability to the region. The Kurdish separatists, while enjoying significant amounts of autonomy, would be pushed into direct talks with the Syrian government over a power-sharing agreement. The Turks have resisted talks with the US over security at the Syrian border, angered at the US alliance with the Kurdish separatists.

Trump, while urging a withdrawal, also said he’d leave behind a force to “keep the oil.” He suggested a major American firm like Exxon Mobil would come in to exploit Syria’s oil, but so far, no big American company has been involved, and the Kurds are exporting oil largely in collaboration with al-Assad’s government.

US continues sanctions as Syria strugles to recover from massive quake.

Asked about the ongoing sanctions of the al-Assad regime, Ford said it was time to take a hard look at whether they were working and at what cost. “That’s a very separate issue from our troop presence,” he said.

“I would just say two things. First, the sanctions are not delivering political concessions from Bashar al-Assad. And then the second thing I would say is, it’s disingenuous for those who justify the sanctions to say that they don’t harm ordinary Syrians living in government-controlled territories. They obviously do.

“All I can say is we’re inflicting pain without getting much for it.”

House Rejects Bill to Withdraw Troops from Syria

WASHINGTON — The House voted 103-321 on Wednesday against pulling US troops out of Syria, rejecting a war powers resolution to do so introduced by Rep. Matt Gaetz.

The Republican from Florida used expedited procedures laid out under the War Powers Act to force a floor vote on the bill, which would have required the Biden administration to withdraw the approximately 900 troops stationed in Syria within six months.

Democrats from the Congressional Progressive Caucus joined libertarian and America First-aligned Republicans in rallying behind the Gaetz resolution but fell short of the votes needed to pass it amid opposition from leaders in both parties.

“Congress has never authorized the use of military force in Syria,” Gaetz said in a statement upon introducing the bill last month. “The United States is currently not in a war with or against Syria, so why are we conducting dangerous military operations there? President [Joe] Biden must remove all US armed forces from Syria.”

The Defense Department first deployed troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State group in 2014. That conflict also saw the return of U.S. forces to Iraq. US troops have remained stationed in both countries under a 2001 military authorization, which Congress passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Four presidents have since used the 2001 military authorization to justify at least 41 military operations in at least 19 countries across the globe.

Since the territorial defeat of the so-called ISIS caliphate, the US Defense Department has kept troops stationed in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, they remain split in the northeast — where they aid the Kurdish-majority administration’s fight against ISIS sleeper cells — and the southeast garrison of al-Tanf, which has become a frequent target of attack for Iran-backed militias.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Fla., and ranking member Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., both argued the U.S. troop presence in Syria is legal under the 2001 AUMF and urged their colleagues to vote against the Gaetz resolution.

“Even though ISIS no longer controls significant territory, there are still tens of thousands of hardened terrorist fighters in Iraq and Syria who are hellbent on establishing their terror state,” McCaul argued ahead of the vote.

House lawmakers also voted down 155-273 a National Defense Authorization Act amendment last year from Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., that would have required Biden to withdraw US troops from Syria if Congress does not pass an authorization specifically for that mission. (The House rejected a similar Bowman amendment in 2021.)

Former President Donald Trump partially withdrew US troops from the Syrian-Turkish border in 2019, paving the way for Ankara to launch a ground offensive against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shown interest in launching another offensive into northeast Syria, repeatedly issuing threats until the devastating earthquake last month that killed thousands in both countries.

But Gaetz indicated he was not worried that pulling US troops out of the area would greenlight another Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurds.

“I don’t believe that our presence is deterring much of anything,” Gaetz told Defense News last week. “I think that it’s a risk of us escalating the conflict.”

Gaetz’s office noted he filed the bill after US Central Command, which oversees Middle East military operations, disclosed that four service members were wounded in a raid against a senior ISIS official, Hamza al-Homsi.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley visited US forces stationed in Syria on Saturday. Milley’s trip prompted protest from both the Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry in Damascus and Gaetz, who accused him of trying to “justify America’s continued involvement in a Middle Eastern civil war.”

Separately on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Iraq, where he vowed that US troops would remain in the country at the invitation of Baghdad.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also advanced legislation on Wednesday that would repeal the 1991 and 2002 Iraq War authorizations. However, those repeals would not result in the removal of US troops from Iraq, since they are stationed there under the 2001 authorization.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered US foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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