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Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

At an extraordinary hearing on Capitol Hill last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee debated whether the policy of open-ended U.S. military operations around the world known popularly as the ‘war on terror’ should come to an end, or should continue indefinitely.

The focus of the hearing was the innocuously named Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF was the Congressional resolution adopted immediately after 9/11 authorizing “all necessary military means” against those who planned or aided the terror attacks, later amended to allow strikes against Al Qaeda and “associated forces.” The AUMF language is used by the Obama administration to justify its policy of drone warfare, which has killed more than 3,000 people in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years. It is also the basis for a major expansion of U.S. covert military operations over the past 12 years.

During last week’s hearing Michael Sheehan, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said that military operations against alleged terrorists would likely continue for “at least 10 to 20 years.” Robert Taylor, the acting general counsel of the Pentagon, said the AUMF allows military action against any group seeking to harm the U.S. or its coalition partners. When asked if this would allow “boots on the ground” in places like Yemen or the Congo, Taylor said yes. Does this mean the battlefield is everywhere, Senators asked? “Yes sir,” said Sheridan, “from Boston to FATA [Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas].”

Even hawkish Senators seemed nonplussed at these extraordinary claims. “The authority … has grown out of proportion and is no longer applicable to the conditions that prevailed” after 9/11, said John McCain. He found it “disturbing” that the Pentagon wants to continue this authority but said he understands “because basically you have carte blanche” to do anything around the world.

Newly elected Senators seemed genuinely shocked. Angus King of Maine said that the administration’s theory has “essentially rewritten the Constitution here today.” The Pentagon’s interpretation makes the war power of Congress “a nullity.” This gives “unbelievable powers to the president” making it “a very dangerous thing,” said King.

Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana asked if the AUMF allowed intervention in Syria. He pointed out that Al Nusra, one of the rebel groups, is affiliated with Al Qaeda. Could the executive branch use lethal force against the Front, he asked. Sheridan dodged the question. Senator Tim Kaine found the suggestion that the AUMF could justify action in Syria especially disturbing and said he did not want anyone to get the idea that this would be acceptable to Congress.

It was an extraordinary show of Pentagon arrogance, combined with a refreshing expression of Senatorial skepticism.

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I appreciate the good comments readers have made on my thoughts about the Syrian crisis. Here are further reflections on the latest developments:

If the disclosure on Sunday by Carla Del Ponte of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria is confirmed that Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons, this is a real game changer. It blows a big hole in the Obama administration’s story about the Assad regime crossing the President’s faux red line. It shows how little the government really knows about what’s going on in this complex and bloody civil war. It should make us extremely cautious about becoming involved militarily and reluctant about providing military support for the Syrian rebels.

Speaking of red lines, what about the apparent Israeli air strike against Syrian military facilities early Sunday morning? Several powerful explosions destroyed critical military installations near the presidential palace in Damascus, killing a number of elite Syrian troops. Israel has not confirmed the strikes, but the scale and precision of the attacks were unmistakably of Israeli origin. Sunday’s attack followed another apparent Israeli strike on Friday near the Damascus airport. U.S. officials say that Israel is acting to prevent the transfer of missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Israeli attacks against Syria are a blatant violation of international law. They increase the risk of the conflict spreading further in the region and should make us even more hesitant about becoming involved militarily. As the New York Times reports today, however, they seem to be stoking debate in Washington about ratcheting up military pressure on the Assad regime. Republican Senator John McCain has reiterated his call for a no-fly zone in Syria. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said over the weekend that the United States will probably soon begin providing arms for the rebels.

Arming the Syrian rebels would increase the intensity of a war that has already taken more than 70,000 lives. Providing weapons to the rebels means giving military support to insurgent forces that include substantial Al Qaida-related factions. If the jihadist groups in Syria are indeed the toughest fighters, as reports suggest, they are likely to gain control of any weapons we send. The U.S. would end up arming Al Qaida.

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