- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Syria and Our Illegal Acts of War

I mentioned the illegality of U.S. actions in Syria in an earlier post [1], but I wanted to say a bit more on that point. There has never been a Congressional vote authorizing U.S. military operations in Syria against anyone, and there has been scant debate over any of the goals that the U.S. claims to be pursuing there. The U.S. launches attacks inside Syria with no legal authority from the U.N. or Congress, and it strains credulity that any of these operations have anything to do with individual or collective self-defense. The U.S. wages war in Syria simply because it can.

Obama expanded the war on ISIS into Syria over two years ago, and the U.S. was arming the opposition for at least more than a year before that. The U.S. has been a party to the war in Syria in one form or another for more than four years, but the underlying assumption that it is in our interest to take part in this war has not been seriously questioned by most members of Congress. The president had no authority to take the U.S. to war in Syria, and the current president still has no such authority. We are so accustomed to illegal warfare that we barely notice that the policy has never really been up for debate and has never been put to a vote. If this illegal warfare eventually leads us into a larger conflict, we will finally notice, but by then it will be too late.

The latest episode with the Syrian jet shows the dangers that come from conducting a foreign policy unmoored from both the national interest and representative government. The Syrian jet was shot down because it was threatening rebels opposed to the Syrian government, and the U.S. is supporting those rebels up to and including destroying regime forces that attack them. The U.S. has no business supporting those rebels, and it has no right to have its military forces operating inside Syria. Shooting down a Syrian plane inside its own country under these circumstances is nothing less than an unprovoked act of war against another state.

33 Comments (Open | Close)

33 Comments To "Syria and Our Illegal Acts of War"

#1 Comment By K Street Loiterer On June 19, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

Along with a lot of other people who voted for Trump, I don’t want us involved in the Syrian civil war. I have no idea what Trump thinks he’s doing over there. Or why he is spending so much of his time and focus (and our money) on these worthless hellholes. He was supposed to get us out of there and focus on America.

Yes, Congress should tell him to get out and stay out.

#2 Comment By liberal On June 19, 2017 @ 1:14 pm

Great, timely post. Tangling with another nuclear-armed power makes anyone with a brain in their head nervous.

I’ve seen comments to the effect that “well, the Russian reaction to the cruise missile strike launched by Trump didn’t involve much.” Or that we ourselves wouldn’t launch a nuclear attack over such small stakes, nor would Putin.

Such commentary misses the real danger—slow escalation into a confrontation neither side is willing to back down from.

I have kids, and while I care about (e.g.) the people in Yemen (and am sickened by both Trump’s and Obama’s actions there), I (like most humans) care even more about my own children. This nonsense puts them directly at risk, which really makes me angry (as if I wasn’t angry enough at the blood on my hands with our actions re Yemen, etc).

#3 Comment By Chris Chuba On June 19, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

I know that Larison’s point remains unchanged even if the Pentagon’s account is 100% accurate but it is worth noting that it is likely fiction.

The author of this website does a good job of coalescing sources from other locations to produce a timeline that shows that the Pentagon’s account is largely fiction. Try to get over that he calls himself ‘Moon of Alabama’

Our MSM has not seriously questioned a Pentagon press release in 30yrs, so this gives them license to go further astray. Just look at how many times they revised the simply failed Yemeni raid story.

We are playing a dangerous game here, I believe that our Generals really believe that the Russians will never respond to what we do. I believe that the Russians will eventually conclude that there is no point in showing restraint because it only invites further aggression.

I just watched Oliver Stone’s ‘Putin’ and one thing that I found striking was that Putin maintains that there is very little difference between U.S. Administrations but that he always maintains a little hope. Personally, I agree with his observation and think that he is being naive if he believes that anything will change. If he ever comes to the same conclusion then our military will be in for yet another surprise.

#4 Comment By Xenia Grant On June 19, 2017 @ 2:36 pm

The US is an imperialist country. In the days of the Cold War, the one good thing the USSR did was to be a barrier to American outreach. Too bad we don’t have a good enough thorn sticking our paws and saying ‘lay off and nation builders your own country!’

#5 Comment By No to neos On June 19, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

Maybe, to be good sports, the US government will allow the Russians to shoot down an American military plane over the US?

#6 Comment By No to neos On June 19, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

Whoops, should have written “Syrians to shoot down an American military plane over the US?”

#7 Comment By John Newman On June 19, 2017 @ 4:18 pm

I eagerly await the Democrat Resistance anti-war march tomorrow! Has anyone heard where it will be?

#8 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On June 19, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

Does the Defense Department have any idea of how dangerous this is? Will the ongoing demonization of Russia and Putin in the American media ensure that our military leaders will be blind to the danger? Let’s hope Trump follows his Putin-respecting instincts rather than the crazy neocons who populate his administration and the Defense Department.

#9 Comment By jk On June 19, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

Where is the “Resistance” now? Are they fighting against this stupid war in Syria?

Protesting stupid sanctions against Cuba?

Complaining about the record arms sale with Saudi Arabia (home of the 9/11 terrorists?)?

Second guessing themselves with the latest bought of Russian sanctions that managed to piss off Germany and Austria and put European energy security at risk?

No, they are all on MSNBC or CNN dragging out a stupid investigation all the while pushing Russia to war.

I’m curious if the US shoots down a Syrian jet inside Syria on behalf of “moderate rebels” it’s called self defense, what Orwellian term describes if Syria or Russia shoots down of US jet inside Syria?

Trump’s laziness/stupidity delegating all strategic aspects to the military with no higher level executive guidance to his generals along his the neocon push to war with Russia made this event inevitable in some ways.

Russia cannot lose face too much, nor can the US.

#10 Comment By Viriato On June 19, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

What’s the point of a congressional vote? What difference would it make? Would Congress vote against war? No. When Congress took its war-making power seriously, did it ever once vote against war? No.

#11 Comment By KevinS On June 19, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

“I have no idea what Trump thinks he’s doing over there.”

And I am sure Trump has no idea either. If a knowledgable interviewer quizzed him for more than 10 minutes about the conflict, he would melt into a mishmash of incoherent nonsense.

#12 Comment By oath? what oath? On June 19, 2017 @ 7:27 pm

“Where is the “Resistance” now? Are they fighting against this stupid war in Syria?”

The “resistance” is more concerned with letting men use women’s bathrooms and letting foreigners take our jobs than it is about civilians being killed or starved to death, or new waves of terror attacks, or a few more trillion down the toilet as Trump lets these incompetent generals take over US policy in the Middle East.

#13 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 19, 2017 @ 8:09 pm

Trump has even less authority under international law for this latest action than he had for the missile strike after the alleged chemical weapons incident, and much less than he and Obama have for the attacks on ISIS.

In the case of the missile strike, Trump’s lawyers could at least point to the the Convention against the use of chemical weapons, and to the UNSC Resolution which threatened the use of force for repeat violations that was passed in 2013 during the first Syrian chemical warfare event. Of course, neither of those rationales really holds water without a specific UNSC Resolution authorizing the use of force, which was absent. But at least there was something.

ISIS presents a case where a terrorist organization is using the territory of a nation, Syria, which is unable to prevent it from doing so. In such a case, the right of self defense does allow for attacks against the terrorist organization in that nation. Also, ISIS uses Syrian territory to attack Iraq, and Iraq has actually specifically “invited” the US to help it resist those attacks. There is also a case to be made, I suppose, that Syria itself has invited the US and other nations to help it defeat ISIS. And there is some UNSC language arguably authorizing such actions as well.

But there is nothing, that I can see, in any UNSC resolution, or international law in general, remotely justifying the US in brazenly waging war against the recognized government of Syria. The Syrian air force was fighting folks in open, military rebellion against its authority. That the US supports these folks, in various ways, does not mean that the US has any kind of international legal case for taking military action against the Syrian air force.

Similarly, Trump has very little authority under domestic US law either for this latest attack either. Both Trump and Obama stretched the AUMFs against Al Qaeda and Saddam to include attacks on ISIS. But neither of those AUMFs even remotely authorizing attacking the Syrian government.

This case really is a new overreach for US presidents.

Syria is not doing anything remotely “wrong,” even under new-fangled notions of “R2P” and human rights interventions. No WMD is being used. The Syrian air strikes are against armed rebels, not civilians. There is not even the fake rationale of preventing a “bloodbath” that was ginned up for the UNSC against Libya. On the domestic legal front, Trump has nothing more than a bald, bare assertion of the “national interest,” and raw executive authority. He has no Congressional authorization of any kind, that I can see.

It now seems as if the POTUS can simply make war, against whomever he chooses, whenever he chooses…

#14 Comment By Anthony Hinds On June 19, 2017 @ 8:36 pm

Trump promised to defeat ISIS. He said he would do this and you still voted for him. These are his quotes:

“I would bomb the s**t out of ’em. I would just bomb those suckers. I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch—there would be nothing left.” Then he followed that with saying he’d have Exxon go in there and take the oil, although the Russians and Syrians are currently making good headway toward those oil fields. That may lead to a showdown, but I think we’ll end up holding short of stealing the oil.

“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families,”

#15 Comment By Donald On June 19, 2017 @ 10:08 pm

Larison didn’t vote for Trump.

But yes, people who voted for Trump thinking he would be antiwar because of some things he said ignored other things he said.

#16 Comment By Whine Merchant On June 19, 2017 @ 10:46 pm

People are overlooking the ‘form and content big picture’ here:
In Form, it is a demonstration of US weaponry at a time Trump is trying to boost sales of expensive war planes to meet his trade imbalance promises.
On Content, it is letting the pentagon call the shots [literally in this case] so he can pose with smiling uniforms to thrill his fan base.
Win – win for the President, and Rupert Murdoch is praising him for it, just like when he boosted Thatcher to use military overkill in the Falklands. –

#17 Comment By rayray On June 20, 2017 @ 12:34 am

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “the resistance”, as some posters have called it, focusing in on Trump’s approach to social and environmental issues; approaches which are just as stupid and destructive as his approach to Foreign Policy.

It’s an easy punchline to make fun of folks who care about social and environmental issues but I’m massively grateful that they do and that they do so loudly. And one could argue, the ignorance he exhibits with such issues hit even closer to home than the ignorance he exhibits through his actions in Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, et al.

That said, I agree that Trump’s work in the Foreign Policy realm should also be resisted as much as possible. That said, it’s hard to know how to coherently resist it since it’s less an expression of any coherent ideology or philosophy and more an expression of his own dyspeptic, uninformed insecurities.

But really, as many have pointed out, the incoherence is all based upon one thing, one audience, one spiritual guiding light: Fox News.

If they applaud it, and they always will, then he’s happy.

#18 Comment By Rob On June 20, 2017 @ 4:30 am

@philadelphialawyer: A very excellent summation of the legal position. I’m better versed on the international law aspects, but everything you say is spot on in my view. I would say, however, that I almost prefer that the US has dropped any pretence of being bound by any law (international or domestic) in carrying out military activities. Under previous administrations, the law was stretched beyond all recognition to justify action (the collective defence of Iraq argument as justification for going into Syria to fight ISIS being a good example). At least under Trump, the pretence is dropped. The US military will act where and how it chooses, without reference to legal restrictions. It’s in some ways more honest and less galling.

#19 Comment By icarusr On June 20, 2017 @ 7:00 am

“He was supposed to get us out of there and focus on America.”

What Anthony said. In fact, what Trump said. Yet again, we have expressions of what Trump “was supposed to” so by Trump voters that have very little connection with objective reality. I mean, the man can’t honor a contract and has declared bankruptcy; most of his supporters think him the bigger Alpha Male and Great Negotiator. EVEN if he had made promises as to keeping the US out of war, why would anyone have believed that he would follow through?

My very strong advice for Trump voters would be to accept they were conned and move on, rather than harp on what Trump was “supposed to” have done.

#20 Comment By Donald On June 20, 2017 @ 8:04 am

Ray ray– I agree people should oppose Trump on the environment and social policy. The problem is that on foreign policy many ( not all) of his critics are also horrible. Trump is horrible in his own uniquely incoherent way, but warmongering in the Middle East, for example, has a long bipartisan tradition.

#21 Comment By Thymoleontas On June 20, 2017 @ 8:08 am

“The U.S. wages war in Syria simply because it can … the underlying assumption that it is in our interest to take part in this war has not been seriously questioned … a foreign policy unmoored from both the national interest and representative government.”

Indeed! But it is because the tail is wagging the dog. The hegemon is doing the bidding of its clients.

#22 Comment By Donald On June 20, 2017 @ 8:09 am

Probably should have said long bipartisan history. The best example is Clinton. She was widely praised for her foreign policy experience and yet she used every argument Bush used for going into Iraq and she favored intervening in Libya and Syria. Trump’s policy in Syria might be morphing into what she might have done.

#23 Comment By Mark Thomason On June 20, 2017 @ 8:23 am

Those US forces are not just operating in Syria, they have set up a permanent base area in Syria, a US base in Syria. That is grossly illegal.

#24 Comment By Chris Chuba On June 20, 2017 @ 8:26 am


“I suppose, that Syria itself has invited the US and other nations to help it defeat ISIS.”

This is specifically untrue. The only countries that the UN Recognized govt of Syria has invited in are Russian, Iranian, and Iraqi forces. Assad has specifically called all other land forces invaders. I don’t blame him since the U.S. policy has been for a dogmatic insistence for an end of his govt regardless of election results but in any case Assad has called U.S. and U.S. and all U.S Coalition forces invaders.

Is there really a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force for Chemical weapons usage from 2013? There was an agreement regarding the destruction of Syria’s WMD stockpile. I don’t know if it included the threat of force.

#25 Comment By Uncle Billy On June 20, 2017 @ 8:35 am

Congress is worthless. Their two main duties are passing a budget and declaring war. They can do neither. They would rather hold hearings on internet gambling and other non issues than do their real job.

Congress is capable only of phony posturing and not much else. No wonder Presidents of both parties ignore Congress and do what they want.

#26 Comment By blame game On June 20, 2017 @ 8:56 am

“EVEN if he had made promises as to keeping the US out of war, why would anyone have believed that he would follow through?”

I didn’t believe it. I hoped. And there were some grounds for hope, because whereas you knew Hillary was going to screw things up (i.e. her non-record in the Senate and her record of flaming disaster at State), you could hope that Trump wasn’t lying and would actually do some of what he promised.

#27 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 20, 2017 @ 9:25 am

I still believe his original intent. But he lacks the courage to press ahead and he hired people whose intent was to undermine his foreign policy.

I don’t think he was lying. I do think he was naive enough to think now that he was in — he would be in. And in reality, based on the environment in DC and elsewhere in halls of power, money and influence he was never going to be in.

He should have known that going in. I am ever hopeful that things work out in his favor — but twenty plus years of the same thing doesn’t make it likely. The terrorism ploy was always going to be a threat to his agenda.

#28 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 20, 2017 @ 9:46 am

Chris Chuba:

I think Assad said that ground troops were “invaders.” Which leaves open the issue of air strikes. And he does tend to speak out of both sides of his mouth. Even in the statement about “invaders,” he seemed to take the US to task more for the ineffectiveness of its attacks on ISIS than for the failure to secure a formal invitation. I appreciate the point, however.

As for the 2013 UNSC, the “best” language for justifying US air strikes is:

“[The SC] Decides, in the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including
unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by
anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the
United Nations Charter…”

But the resolution also said that accusations of non compliance were to be determined by the UNSC, which remained “seized” of the matter. So, I think force was “threatened,” but it was not authorized. There was no, as the Russian ambassador put it, authorization for the “automatic” use of force in case of non compliance or alleged non compliance by Syria.

I want to stress again, however, that in the current case there is nothing at all. No UNSC to stretch. No inflated or exaggerated notion of self defense or invitation. Nothing. The US has committed an act of war against Syria without any legal justification whatsoever.

#29 Comment By Troy On June 20, 2017 @ 10:04 am

There is at least one member of Congress working hard agaist this crazy policy – Tulsi Gabbard. If you want these endless interventions to stop, do what you can to support her.

#30 Comment By Skeptic On June 20, 2017 @ 10:47 am

Let’s stop being naive. Trump has two options. He can do what the deep state tells him to do, which is the same thing they would have told Hillary to do. Or he can be removed by that same deep state even faster than they are already laboring to remove him.

How do we know this? Let’s recall what happened when in late 2016 Obama tried to cooperate with the Russian side to stop the war in Syria. Kerry made the deal. Obama approved it. The generals wanted none of it and bombed the hell out of the Syrian army. End of deal.

The reality is that we no longer have civilian control over the military. The elected president is a figurehead.

All the hysteria over Trump (and Russia ad nauseum) amounts to little more than wanting an attractive figurehead instead of an unattractive one.

#31 Comment By c matt On June 20, 2017 @ 11:06 am

and while I care about (e.g.) the people in Yemen (and am sickened by both Trump’s and Obama’s actions there), I (like most humans) care even more about my own children.

Stopping Trumbama’s actions in Syria and Yemen would have the happy side effect of protecting your own children as well.

Well, Trump may have lied about his intent or been mistaken about his ability to curb America’s foreign atrocities, but at least he campaigned against involvement – Hildebeast campaigned for involvement. Given the two options, at least one said the right things.

#32 Comment By rayray On June 20, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

@c matt
Hate to have to point it out, but Trump also campaigned for the opposite. Famously, in one speech, within the same sentence he said two opposite things about foreign policy.

People heard what they wanted to hear.

Agreed…what I was (poorly) trying to say is that a sane foreign policy is something you’re finding on neither side. Bests.

#33 Comment By Pete On June 20, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

Effing with the hornets nest in the Middle East has resulted in millions dead, maimed for life and fleeing for their lives elsewhere. Now the effing morons are cornering the grizzly. Stand by for millions nuked and the effing morons will have no place to run, but pay for their carnage in hell.