World News: Syrian Air Strikes and the Future of US-Middle East Relations

On Thursday, Feb. 25, President Joe Biden ordered seven airstrikes against a Syrian site currently occupied by two Iran-backed militias: Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayid al-Shuhada. The first publicly known military operation of President Biden’s inauguration, this action is stated to be in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition forces within the region. On Feb. 15, members of these militias fired a rocket on the Irbil International Airport, killing one non-American contractor and injuring an unspecified number of American contractors. A separate strike was launched against the Balad Air Base, with no casualties or injuries reported at this time. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports 22 deaths occurred during the retaliatory strikes, presumably members of the militant groups.

President Biden has, however, received strong criticism from congressional officials on the right and left alike, carrying out this operation without congressional approval. His administration protests that he was authorized to conduct this bombing under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter guaranteeing “the United States’ inherent right of self-defense” and Article II of the Constitution, guaranteeing the President “the power to direct limited U.S. military operations abroad without Congressional approval when those operations serve important U.S. interests and are of a limited nature, scope, and duration.” However, others are not convinced that the Feb. 15 strikes met the extenuating circumstances necessary to justify an immediate threat within Syria. That Biden made no indication to Congress that he intended to respond in this manner during the ten-day period between then and the retaliatory bombings only serve to cast further doubt on there being an immediate threat.

Senator Tim Kaine, D-VA, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee stated, “Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances.” Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn, chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee, also voiced his concerns: “Congress should hold this administration to the same standard it did prior administrations, and require clear legal justifications for military action, especially inside theaters like Syria, where Congress has not explicitly authorized any American military action.” Murphy also directly countered Biden’s justification as the strikes being retaliatory on the basis that so long as the strikes are not in response to an immediate threat, of which no information proving so has been made public, that the strikes “must fall within the definition of an existing congressional authorization of military force.”

Progressive lawmakers have also criticized the action, such as Ilhan Omar invoking a tweet from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki criticizing the legality of similar strikes from the Trump administration in 2017. The post read, “Also what is the legal authority for strikes? Assad is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country.” Similar commentary from Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in 2017 and 2019 has led to accusations of hypocrisy.

This also may have broader implications on the Biden administration’s military policy going forward. President Biden’s use of Article II strongly mirrors the foreign policy of former President Barack Obama, to whom he served as Vice President. President Obama previously sought and was refused congressional approval to intervene in Syria as a means to punish Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons.  He proceeded to do so anyways using Article II as well as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, a relic of 2001 and the “War on Terror,” as a legal basis. President Donald Trump also utilized Article II as a justification for the assassination of top Iranian general Soleimani, the sole distinction being the Trump administration’s assertion that Soleimani posed an imminent threat to American forces and security. The presidency has, over the years, accumulated a series of bills on resolutions that grant them a broad amount of interventionary power. Many see Biden’s actions as a sign that he will adopt a similarly generous understanding of the executive branch’s authority over the military and foreign relations.

The secondary motivation of these airstrikes appears to be to send a message to Iran against their use of proxy militias across the Middle East, with Biden addressing Tehran and telling them “you can’t act with impunity” in his first press conference after the strikes. This would appear as a sudden shift in the Biden administration’s stance of future bilateral relations with Iran, greatly diminishing future prospects of re-entering the Iran Nuclear Deal, a major campaign promise of President Biden’s, as a bargain to further military deterrence.

With the youth of the Biden administration, it is difficult to ascertain the future of their foreign policy. However, if their recent bold actions are to become the status quo, it may evidence a broad interpretation of executive authority, the perpetuation of a power struggle with Congress for supremacy in foreign policy, and the seeming abandonment of a major campaign promise.