Senator Rand Paul (R‑KY) has introduced a bill calling for the withdrawal of US forces from Syria unless Congress authorizes them to be there. A perverse set of events has brought this all to a head, but good constitutional hygiene and careful strategy are their own rewards. Because of Congress’s abdication, US troops in Syria have no military mission beyond serving as targets for regional militias. Our men and women in uniform deserve a clear and achievable mission, always and everywhere. They do not have one in Syria. (See my November Reason article for more on this.)
To recap: despite repeated pledges there would be “no boots on the ground” in Syria as part of the anti‐ISIS campaign, President Obama put boots on the ground in Syria as part of the anti‐ISIS campaign. In December 2018, President Trump noted that ISIS, having lost 99 percent of the territory it held during its vaunted caliphate, had been defeated, and pledged that there would be a “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of US forces from the country. Trump’s defense secretary and counter‐ISIS czar (who is now President Biden’s point man on the Middle East) resigned in protest, and the officials who didn’t resign successfully worked to sabotage Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces.
Since the Israeli assault on Gaza in response to the October 7 Hamas terror attack, US forces in Syria have served as little more than shooting gallery targets for regional militias backed by Iran. Contrary to their ostensible purpose, they are not fighting ISIS. As noted in the most recent Inspector General report for the counter‐ISIS campaign, US forces stationed at the major US base in Syria had “no kinetic engagements” with the enemy during the previous three months. Whatever rump ISIS faction exists in Syria, local incentives and capabilities exist for dealing with it. Handily.
As the former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently observed, the “real (but unstated) reason the US is there is to block Iran from using a road coming from Iraq into Syria.” But the Iranians simply take a somewhat longer route, and the cost we pay for making them do this has been regular rocket fire, the primary defense against which has been luck. This is a disservice to our servicemembers.
Congress should find the commensurate courage to debate this mission, and should they decide on war with Syria or Iran, the Constitution provides them the option of declaring war on Syria or Iran. Barring that, these troops have no lawful or coherent mission, and they should be brought home.