Trump Is Weighing a New Attack Against Syria - Would It Even Be Legal?

President Donald Trump is considering retaliation after new footage emerged that allegedly shows a chemical attack waged by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people.

"We're making decisions as to what we do with respect to the horrible attack that was made near Damascus," Trump said Monday. "And it will be met. And it will be met forcefully. When I will not say because I don't like talking about timing."

He continued: "We're going to make a decision tonight or shortly thereafter. We can't let that happen in our world, especially when we're able to -- because of the power of the United States — we're able to stop it." 

Trump previously ordered airstrikes against the Syrian government in 2017 in response to another chemical weapons attack. But both that action and any military response under consideration would likely be illegal. International law prohibits unilateral military intervention except in cases of national self-defense, and American law requires Congress to authorize the executive's war powers.

While the attacks on ISIS have been justified under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force in response to 9/11, it's hard to believe that provision covers attacking the Syrian government.

"There's just no (legal) argument that the 2001 AUMF authorizes force against the Assad regime," said Steve Vladeck, a CNN legal analyst and national security law professor, in 2017 about Trump's actions then. 

Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU National Security Project, made similar comments to the Guardian.

“The use of chemical weapons against civilians is horrific, but the fact is that Trump’s military action violates the Constitution and U.S. treaty obligations under the UN charter,” she said. “There’s no legitimate domestic or international law basis for it, and it’s telling that the administration hasn’t even tried to provide one.”

A year later, the U.S. is in almost exactly the same position. And without congressional action, it will remain highly questionable whether there's any constitutional basis for Trump to attack Syria at all.

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