Six Months in, Obama Asks Congress to Authorize War in Iraq and Syria - But to What End?


Six months after the first U.S. strikes against ISIS and allied groups in Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration formally asked Congress to approve an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that would allow for a continuation of American involvement in the conflict.

The proposed AUMF would limit military action against the Islamic State to three years. It would also allow limited use of U.S. ground troops for things like rescue operations or intelligence sharing, according to the Huffington Post.

The formal request comes at a time when it is unclear what if anything the current bombing campaign has accomplished. After all, a combined military offensive by U.S., European, and Gulf countries has left ISIS with thousands of fighters, an area the size of Belgium, and a sectarian conflict in the region that remains unresolved.

The U.S. Is Bearing the Biggest Burden

Airstrikes by the Jordanian military may have made the biggest headlines this month, but the U.S. continues to share the largest burden of warfare against ISIS. Since the fighting began, there have been more than 1,000 airstrikes; of these, 80 percent are from the U.S.

Although President Obama has touted the multilateral nature of the operations, the facts still show the U.S. taking on the majority of what is truly a regional problem. 946 strikes have been carried out by American forces, and 79 strikes have come from four Gulf nations combined.

But the bigger issue may be that all powers involved are too quick to use military force rather than address underlying issuses.

With Friends Like These

ISIS is ultimately fighting a battle for the hearts and minds of people in the region, and its stunning brutality, televised around the world, is one of the best arguments against joining. But many of its enemies – who are either allied directly to the West or part of a de facto alliance – are utilizing a sort of brutality that is driving many in the region back into the arms of ISIS.

For example, in October Amnesty International released a report showing that government-backed Shi'a militias who control much of Iraq have apparently conducted “execution-style killings” of prisoners; “Shi’a militias are ruthlessly targeting Sunni civilians on a sectarian basis under the guise of fighting terrorism, in an apparent bid to punish Sunnis for the rise of the IS and for its heinous crimes,” said one Amnesty staffer.

But the most violence is coming from the Syrian government, which the West was considering bombing over alleged use of chemical weapons in 2013. While the world is focused on the atrocities of ISIS, the Syrian government has been freely using massive violence in crowded civilian areas. For example, it has made notorious use of “barrel bombs” – cheap, unguided aerial weapons that are packed full of gasoline, nails, and steel chunks. “By using barrel bombs on densely populated areas, Syrian government forces are using means and methods of warfare that do not distinguish between civilians,” warned Human Rights Watch in June. And news broke this week that Syria's government is more or less coordinating with the various countries bombing ISIS within their territory, which puts the West in the awkward position of collaborating with and bombing the enemies of perhaps the worst human rights abuser in the region.

An Impatient Congress

Although there was little outcry from Congress when Obama initially began his bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq – which began amidst a political climate of outrage over beheadings of Americans by ISIS – there is now growing chorus of complaints from lawmakers that may lead to an end to Congressional sanctioning of the war.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) is introducing legislation to rescind the authorization of force passed before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan altogether. “It would be a tremendous error for our Congress to finally debate a long overdue authorization for the ongoing war against ISIL and neglect the important nonmilitary options that comprise a comprehensive solution,” said Lee. Her plan would also require to Obama to send a plan showing nonmilitary ways to counter ISIS as well as an accounting of military equipment the U.S. is sending to Syria as well as a description of civilian casualties as a result of American airstrikes.

One Democrat, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), has warned that lawmakers are not willing to give Obama a “blank check”; Maryland Senator Ben Card (D-MD) warned his colleagues against giving a “broad authorization that could be used many years from now.”

The 2016 Connection

Despite the fact that the U.S. already boasts the biggest responsibility for a military-focused strategy that does not appear to be bearing fruit, there are some who want to go even further. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a long-time hawk who has announced he may seek the presidency in 2016, has endorsed putting as many as 10,000 U.S. troops on the ground to battle ISIS.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who has been a skeptic of the use of military force, has offered some support to Western operations against ISIS, but also has pushed regional allies to do more.

What's lacking in the debate is what Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) – who's not a presidential contender – called a “proactive foreign policy vision” from progressives which rejects a military approach altogether to what is increasingly not a military problem.

It remains to be seen whether any presidential contender – Democratic, Republican, or independent – is willing to offer that alternative as they seek to take over America's involvement in this conflict next year.

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