Biden faces bipartisan pushback to the airstrikes he ordered in Syria a month into his presidency

President Joe Biden waves to journalists before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, February 26, 2021.

  • Biden is facing questioning from both sides of the aisle about airstrikes conducted in Syria.
  • Thursday’s airstrikes were conducted against Iran-backed militias in response to recent attacks.
  • Some lawmakers are questioning the legality of the strikes, though others expressed support.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

President Joe Biden is facing questions from Congress about his decision to carry out airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria, specifically regarding his authority to conduct this move.

On Thursday, Biden directed airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militias operating just across the Iraqi border in Syria in response to a series of recent attacks against US and coalition forces in Iraq as well as other persistent threats, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The airstrikes came a little over a week after a deadly attack in which a barrage of rockets were fired at coalition forces stationed outside Irbil International Airport, killing a US-led coalition contractor and wounding a US service member, among others.

The retaliatory strike option Biden picked was selected as a “middle” option from among a wide range of possible responses, a senior defense official told Politico. US fighter aircraft dropped 500-pound bombs on a total of seven targets.

The Department of Defense said that Thursday’s airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities” at a border control point used by Iran-backed militias like Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Kait’ib Hezbollah, the latter of which was held responsible for a deadly attack in December 2019 that set in motion events that ultimately triggered a dangerous escalation of tensions with Iran.

The airstrikes were focused on operational infrastructure, the aim being the prevention of future attacks, and were not intended to inflict significant casualties.

The department stated that the strikes, which it considered “proportionate,” sent an “unambiguous message” that “Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel.”

‘Strikes without Congressional authorization’

Tim Kaine
Sen. Tim Kaine speaks during a US Senate Budget Committee hearing regarding wages at large corporations on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 25, 2021.

Lawmakers from both parties are openly questioning the legality of the strikes and the general wisdom behind them. 

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Americans deserve to know the “rationale” for the strikes and the “legal justification without coming to Congress.”

Kaine added: “Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances.”

Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, tweeted: “We ran on ending wars, not escalating conflicts in the Middle East. Our foreign policy needs to be rooted in diplomacy & the rule of law, not retaliatory air strikes without Congressional authorization.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who serves as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, in a statement acknowledged that “the president unquestionably has the right to defend our nation and our forces from imminent attack.”

He argued, though, that such “retaliatory strikes, not necessary to prevent an imminent threat, must fall within the definition of an existing congressional authorization of military force.” Murphy said that Congress should demand “clear legal justifications for military action,” just as it did for past administrations.

And Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, known for being staunchly opposed to intervention, condemned the strike as an attack on “a sovereign nation without authority.”

“What authority does @POTUS have to strike Syria?” Paul tweeted. Pointing to White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s previous questioning on social media of the Trump administration’s military actions in Syria, he suggested someone now ask her the same.

‘Inherent self-defense powers enshrined in our Constitution’

A National Security Council spokesperson told Insider that the White House “had a rigorous process to include legal review of the strikes conducted.”

“The president acted pursuant to inherent self-defense powers enshrined in our Constitution and the UN Charter,” the spokesperson said. “As a matter of domestic law, the President took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to defend US personnel.”

Article II of the US Constitution designates the president as the commander-in-chief of the US military, and multiple administrations have taken actions based on a broad interpretation of this. 

The spokesperson said the strikes were “necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks,” and in accordance with the right to self-defense under international law. 

Thursday’s strikes, the first highly publicized military action under Biden, came amid growing calls in Congress for presidential war powers to be reined in, including the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed laws that have offered every president since broad authority to wage war around the world. These laws – the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) – paved the way for the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and over the years the 2001 AUMF has been used by multiple presidents to justify at least 41 military operations in 19 countries.

After then-President Donald Trump ordered a controversial drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in early January 2020, congressional lawmakers from both parties moved to constrain his war powers.

Later that month, the House passed a resolution to repeal the 2002 AUMF, and Kaine sponsored a resolution to prevent Trump from taking military action against Iran without congressional approval that passed in both chambers but was ultimately vetoed

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A Yemeni boy walks past a mural depicting a US drone on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa.

Former President Barack Obama also faced bipartisan disapproval over his approach to counterterrorism, particularly his reliance on drone strikes.

The Obama administration was criticized for conducting drone strikes on dubious legal grounds, taking out suspected terrorists in countries with which the US is not technically at war, such as Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. Obama also controversially ordered a drone strike that killed a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen. 

Though there’s an expanding congressional movement to limit presidential war powers, Biden also received some bipartisan support for the Syria strikes.

For instance, Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, argued that the strikes demonstrated Biden’s “resolve to prevent Iran from targeting America’s personnel and allies with impunity,” stating that “it was a strong act that will surely send a message to Tehran that our country will not abide destabilizing actions from its forces or its proxies.”

Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, among some other GOP members, said that the Biden administration was “right to make clear that attacks on American personnel will not go unanswered.”

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There have been zero reported US drone strikes since Joe Biden took office

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A Yemeni boy walks past a mural depicting a US drone on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa.

  • Since Joe Biden took office, there have no reports of US drone strikes or civilian casualties.
  • This comes after Trump carried out more strikes in Somalia and Yemen than all other presidents combined.
  • “If there is a pause in airstrikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy,” said Amnesty International’s Daphne Eviator.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

It’s a dark trend for new, post-9/11 US heads of state: Usually, within the first weekend, the new president, having inherited a global war on terror, orders the military or an intelligence agency to end someone’s life with an airstrike. To adversaries, it demonstrates resolve; to allies as well as critics, it demonstrates that there will be continuity, no matter which party controls the White House.

President Joe Biden, it appears, has been different. Under his watch, there has been just one declared US airstrike: a February 9 attack in Iraq that, the military claims, “resulted in the deaths of two Daesh terrorists.”

And in stark contrast to his immediate predecessors, there have been no immediate reports of civilian casualties – this, following months of escalated US attacks, from Central Asia to Africa, during his predecessor’s last couple months in office.

Clandestine operations, by their nature, cannot be ruled out. What we know for sure, though, is that “there have been zero local or official reports of US drone or other strikes in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, or Pakistan so far under Biden,” Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group, told Insider.

Biden’s forerunners, Republican and Democrat alike, both carried out US military operations that were both well-publicized and fraught, the demonstration of American power resulting in the death of innocents.

Former President Barack Obama ordered his first drone strike within 72 hours of taking office; that attack, aimed at the Taliban and carried out by the CIA, missed its mark, killing three Pakistani civilians and gravely wounding a child. The tactic would come to define Obama’s legacy, boots on the ground replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles, American lives protected at a cost borne by others.

Former President Donald Trump oversaw his first drone strike on January 20, 2017, the day he was inaugurated. A spree of attacks took place in Yemen, culminating a week later in a botched raid that killed an 8-year-old girl and other civilians. Over the next four years, Trump would go on to bomb the country more often than any of his predecessors combined – not counting ramped up US support, just rescinded, for the Saudi-led war against the nation’s Houthi militants.

Biden is no peacenik. In the US Senate, he backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And there is no reason to believe a lull amid a pandemic and other domestic crises will evolve into a policy of unilateral disarmament.

Nicholas Grossman, a professor of international relations at the University of Illinois and author of a book on drone warfare, wonders if the apparent pause in most US military operations is the aftermath of his predecessor’s outgoing escalations.

“Under Trump, the US ramped up drone strikes in Somalia, though that escalation was already happening in Obama’s final year,” Grossman told Insider. According to data from the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, there were 43 airstrikes in Somalia targeting the extremist group al-Shabaab, during Obama’s two terms in his office, including 16 in his last year. During Trump’s single four-year term, where a focus on rhetoric led many falsely to label him a principled isolationist, there were 208 such airstrikes, including 14 in his final six months.

There have been previous gaps in US strikes, Grossman noted; a lot or a little can happen in three weeks. It’s also possible, he said, that this is something more: “the Biden administration is pausing while reviewing the strategy.” Relatedly, “it’s possible the US military and intelligence agencies launched a few strikes at the end of Trump’s term in anticipation of that pause.”

Alternatively, “it’s also possible that those January strikes did real damage to al-Shabaab as intended, and for that reason there either isn’t a need or a good opportunity at the moment,” Grossman said.

Critics of the US-led war on terror hope the apparent moratorium signals something greater.

“If there is a pause in airstrikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International, told Insider, “and a recognition that past strikes have not succeeded in ending attacks by armed groups, but have instead killed and injured thousands of civilians.”

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