The “Forever Wars” Are Still Going. But They May Be Running on Borrowed Time.
Congress’s latest failure to pull US troops out of Syria may be more significant for demonstrating the growing appetite in both parties to rein in US adventurism overseas.
Like many Americans, you may not be aware that hundreds of US troops are currently deployed in Syria, where they’ve been illegally occupying small, opposition-controlled areas in the southeast and northeast. You may also not be aware that a House vote earlier this week to end their presence in the country failed 103–321.
Despite hitting another brick wall, this latest attempt to pull US troops out of Syria may offer hope for the future, serving as one more sign of the emergence of an inchoate, cross-ideological antiwar coalition in Congress. Introduced by Donald Trump ally Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, the resolution drew the most GOP support for a war powers resolution so far, according to Just Foreign Policy, with forty-seven Republicans voting for the measure. By contrast, the last time a vote to end US involvement in the country was held — an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act put forward last year by Squad member Representative Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat — only twenty-five Republicans supported the resolution, a shift that’s perhaps owed to this resolution’s backing from MAGA standard-bearers like Gaetz and Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene.
At the same time, this Trumpian taint — along with substantive concerns about the fate of Syrian Kurds — may also have contributed to the massive drop in Democratic support for the withdrawal, with only fifty-six voting in favor (a substantial number, but less than half of the 130 who had voted for it last year). Every one of the newly expanded Squad voted for Gaetz’s resolution, aside from Florida’s Maxwell Frost, who has previously been criticized for backing away from some of his previously held progressive foreign-policy positions following his upset Democratic primary win.
Other notable Democratic “nay” votes include Bernie Sanders ally Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, current House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and California representatives Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, who are both currently competing for Senator Dianne Feinstein’s soon-to-be-vacated seat. Representative Barbara Lee, the third big name in that race, and who’s maybe best known as the only member of Congress to vote against the US war in Afghanistan, voted in favor.
The debate over the resolution served as a reminder that, much as with Afghanistan and Iraq before it, everyone wants to end the “forever wars” until it comes down to actually ending a specific one. Opponent after opponent got up to tell the House that they were all for getting out of Syria and ending the broad authorities that have allowed presidents to send troops to obscure conflicts — just not now and not like this.
“Though I oppose an indefinite US military presence in Syria, this measure forces a premature end to our mission at a critical time for our efforts,” said Representative Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat.
“Now, I have been one of the most vocal proponents in this Congress on reasserting Congressional authority in matters of war and peace,” said Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado. “It is time to pull it back. And it is time to reassert our authority and to have the debates that have been long overdue for many, many years. . . . But there is a good way to do it, and there is a wrong way to do it.”
Some of the objections were important, such as concerns about abandoning the Kurds that US forces have allied with in fighting ISIS, and who may be vulnerable to Turkish attack in case of US withdrawal. This was pointed to by new Squad member Representative Becca Balint, a Vermont Democrat, in an interview with the Intercept, even as she voted for the resolution. But California Democratic representative Ro Khanna told the outlet that the United States has “enough leverage, in my view, with Turkey to help protect the Kurds,” and that if the president wanted to make the case for a troop presence to defend them, it needed to be made through Congress. Others saw it differently.
“Withdrawing US troops might help facilitate negotiations for a power-sharing agreement between Turkey, Kurdish separatists, and the Syrian government, which could help bring stability to the region,” says Hassan El-Tayyab, the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s legislative director for Middle East policy. “That would require leading with diplomacy, not military force.”
Other objections on the House floor were more spurious. “Either we fight and defeat them in Syria, or we’ll fight in the streets of our nation,” warned Montana Republican representative Ryan Zinke. “If we withdraw our troops from Syria now, we could see a resurgence of ISIS,” said Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, who instead called for withdrawal to happen only after “the total defeat of ISIS.”
A number pointed to Iran, suggesting how far the reasoning for US involvement has strayed. “If we were to withdraw our troops, that increases the worry that Israel has to have about Iran,” said Representative Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York. “The remaining troops assist the Syrian democratic forces in deterrence of continued terrorist threats from Iranian-backed terrorist organizations,” said South Carolina Republican representative Joe Wilson.
But there’s no way countering Iran fits the already-stretched legal authorization for US intervention, which is based on the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after September 11 to let the US military take on those responsible for the terrorist attack.
The vote follows Mark Milley’s first trip to Syria as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he used similar reasoning as those opposing Gaetz’s resolution, warning that withdrawing would be “setting the conditions for a resurgence” of terrorism, and calling for the “enduring defeat of ISIS.” The trip is a sign that despite the president pledging to no longer “fight the wars of the past” and to launch a new era of “relentless diplomacy,” the Biden White House continues to view prolonging this particular war as a priority, even as US actions in Syria undermine the administration’s talk of respecting sovereignty, territorial integrity, human rights, and a “rules-based international order.”
Also undermining this were Israel’s recent air strikes on Aleppo airport, which took place to little attention and outrage. To add insult to injury, a United Nations official has warned the attack will further impede relief aid to Syria that’s been desperately needed following the horrific earthquake that has killed thousands in the country.
In the midst of all these troubles plaguing Syria, the end of the illegal US occupation of the country’s territory seems like it’s still a ways off from happening. But the vote on Gaetz’s resolution does suggest a cross-partisan consensus opposing open-ended US involvement in foreign wars is emerging, even if it’s coming slower than antiwar voices would prefer.