- White House press secretary Jen Psaki is facing criticism for a 2017 tweet about Syria.
- Psaki in 2017 questioned the legality of airstrikes launched by the Trump administration.
- On Thursday the Biden administration launched attacks on Iran-backed militia groups in Syria.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
A tweet in which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki questioned the legality of US airstrikes on Syria is coming under fresh scrutiny.
The renewed attention came after the Biden administration launched airstrikes on Syrian territory, targeting what the Department of Defense said were Iranian-backed militias operating there.
Psaki posted the tweet on April 14, 2017, after the Trump administration launched airstrikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following a nerve agent attack on civilians by regime forces.
It said: “Also what is the legal authority for strikes? Assad is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country.”
—Jen Psaki (@jrpsaki) April 7, 2017
The strike, one of former President Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy moves, involved firing a barrage of cruise missiles at a Syrian government airbase, in retaliation for an earlier chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians.
The move ended the US policy of not using direct military force against Syria, which had been enacted by President Barack Obama, in whose administration Psaki served.
At the time, Trump’s strike received some bipartisan praise, including by Trump’s former presidential rival Hillary Clinton.
Critics say that according to the logic Psaki applied in 2017, the Biden administration’s airstrikes Thursday should also be deemed illegal. In 2021 as in 2017, Syria is riven by a civil war and has Assad as its president.
Thursday’s strike came in response to an attack last week by Iran-backed militants on an Iraqi airbase used by the US military, which killed one US military contractor and wounded nine other people.
The Pentagon statement said the strike destroyed “multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups.” It described the strike as “defensive.”
—Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) February 26, 2021
Among those to highlight Psaki’s old tweet was Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women to serve in Congress. In the aftermath of the strike she quoted the old post, adding: “Great question.”
The polemicist and journalist Glenn Greenwald also weighed in, saying: “Someone should ask @PressSec her own question verbatim about Biden’s Syria bombing at tomorrow’s briefing (and while the context of her tweet was Trump’s bombing of Syrian forces, the question still applies).”
—Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) February 26, 2021
Psaki did not immediately respond to an email from Insider for comment on the criticism. The Pentagon statement did not offer a legal case for the strike, noting only that Biden had authorized it personally.
Under legislation passed after the 9/11 attacks, the president has broad powers to order military action against terror groups that attack the US, and states that harbor them.
Some believe presidents should seek congressional approval before launching any military action.
The legislation was used to justify President Barack Obama’s launching strikes against ISIS in Syria in 2014, despite the Syrian government opposing the move.
The Thursday strikes targeted militant groups including Khataib Hezbollah, which is listed as a terror group by the State Department. The groups are allied with the Assad regime, and have helped drive back rebel forces in the country.
International law also allows the use of military force by nations in self-defense.
Critics in 2017 argued that, because the Assad regime was not directly targeting the US, the legal justification for Trump’s airstrikes was murky, reported The Guardian.
Under the Obama administration, where Psaki was the State Department spokesperson, US forces worked with Iran-backed militias in Iraq, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, in the fight against ISIS.
After Trump ordered the assassination of the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 Iran-backed forces have launched a series of attacks against US forces in Iraq.