Senators and Legal Experts Condemn Illegal Syrian Air Strikes

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.)  and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have strongly criticized Donald Trump’s authorization of military strikes in Syria.

“President Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against the Syrian government without Congress’s approval is illegal and – absent a broader strategy – it’s reckless,” Kaine said yesterday. 

Kaine has always said that presidents must obtain prior congressional approval for military action.

“Last week, President Trump was adamant that the U.S. was leaving Syria imminently,” Kaine said. ”This week, he is opening a new military front. Assad must face consequences for his war crimes, but presidents cannot initiate military action when there isn’t an imminent threat to American lives.”

Congress, he added, should not give Trump a blank check to wage war.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is also condemning Friday’s military strikes on Syria as “illegal and unauthorized.”

“It is Congress, not the president, which has the constitutional responsibility for making war,” Sanders said Friday night.

“After 17 years of war in Afghanistan and 15 years of war in Iraq, the Middle East needs a political strategy to bring peace, not more American military intervention,” Sanders said.

In the U.S. Congress Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) said Saturday morning that Trump must seek authority for military action from Congress “immediately.”

“The missile strikes occurred in a context where the United States has no clear policy in Syria or the region and at a time when there is real potential for escalation into a conflict with Russia and Iran,” the Congressman said.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May published her legal case for military domaction, saying the air strikes on Syria were legally justified on humanitarian grounds.  U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn however described the action as “legally questionable”.

President Trump has asserted that the United States was prepared to continue the attacks until the Syrian regime stops using chemical weapons.  Saturday morning he tweeted to praise the military but in doing so echoed the fateful words of President George W. Bush 15 years ago:

“A perfectly executed strike last night,” he wrote. “Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

Despite his boasting, the president’s legal authority to attack Bashar Assad is conspicuously missing in action.  Assad is not the subject of the two authorizations Congress passed after 9/11 to legally authorize the use of military force by the U.S.. 

Assad is not part of al Qaeda, not part of a successor organization like the Islamic State and not part of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s former secretary of state, said that the president possesses the inherent authority to authorize military attacks as commander-in-chief.  This specious assertion was last used—and then abandoned—by George W. Bush because it is not a valid premise.

Even though Assad’s actions may be war crimes, that doesn’t mean the U.S. can legally respond without a United Nations Security Council resolution said Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international law specialist at the University of Notre Dame.

“Military force against Syria violates international law just as surely as the use of chemical weapons. President Trump wants to enforce the law by breaking it,” O’Connell said.

In Senate hearings after the April 2017 strike on the Shayrat airbase, Tillerson told Kaine that Trump ordered the strike “pursuant to his power under Article II of the Constitution as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive to use this sort of military force overseas to defend important U.S. national interests.”

He added that the Syrian air strike was “justified and legitimate as a measure to deter and prevent Syria’s illegal and unacceptable use of chemical weapons.”

But experts agree that Tillerson’s statements were not based on any valid legal authority.  Instead, they are just an attempt to create a policy that justifies Trump’s military actions.

Assad’s chemical attacks on Syrians are horrible, but without a declaration that there is a state of war between the U.S. and Syria, these actions are not legal under U.S. laws or the Constitution.

If we accept Tillerson’s justifications we will open the door further to an “unbounded” presidential power, said Allison Murphy, counsel for the Protect Democracy Project.

“In our democracy, the Commander-in-Chief’s power is constrained by the Constitution and Congress, and the rule of law,” Murphy said. “If we concede that President Trump has unilateral authority to decide to strike Assad, do we concede he has similar authority to unilaterally strike North Korea, or Iran, or France?”

Senator Kaine agreed with these comments, saying “Today, it’s a strike on Syria – what’s going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next?”