Constitutionality and Executive Power on Syria Attack

Day 77. On President Donald J. Trump’s 77th day as POTUS, he ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria where the chemical attack was launched. Specifically, he ordered the launch of over 50 tomahawk missiles on the Assad-regime airfield. This marks the first U.S. attack against the Syrian regime since the civil war erupted over six (6) years ago. An estimated 80-people, including women and children, were killed in the suspected toxic chemical attack in Syria’s northern province of Idlib. Over 500 civilians were injured. The Syrian military quickly denied using any chemical agents, and eyes have turned to Russia, the Assad regime, and the United States.

The response to this attack will showcase the measures (or lack thereof) that the international community has struggled to implement with the on-going crisis in Syria. President’s Trump decision to order military strikes has undoubtedly been met with criticism. In a televised address after the missile strikes, President Trump told the world: “no child of God should suffer such horror.” The legal implications on these children extends to being denied entry into the United States as refugees with Trump’s new administration.

Ironically enough, the single deadliest incident in the Syrian conflict occurred in the first chemical attack in 2013. The death toll reached over 1,000 civilians. Has President Trump’s desired involvement in the Syrian conflict changed? In 2013, in a series of angry tweets and social media uproar, Donald Trump ‘advised’ then President Barack Obama NOT to attack Syria and to receive congressional approval before ordering such an attack. In 2016, Trump even campaigned on a less hawkish foreign intervention platform against Senator Hillary Clinton, in which he believed that an attack in Syria could cause World War III.

Besides the apparent flip-flopping that has been observed from politicians, both present and past, the more fundamental question here lies in the constitutionality of the president’s conduct. Was President Trump’s decision constitutional? Trump’s failure to seek congressional approval is critical in an act of war. The Constitution does not permit the President to unilaterally order military action unless the U.S. faces a direct threat of attack. (Article I of the Constitution assigns Congress the power to declare war). But does this meet the definition of war as provided in the Constitution? Or is this something outside of that scope that allows for executive action more freely?

This very issue has been the crux of debate even before this administration, with President Obama’s drone attacks on targets in the Middle East and President Bush’s military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than anything, this is a legal discourse that must be had amongst legal experts rather than a mere political debate of opinion and heated rhetoric. This is merely looking at the constitutionality of the President’s conduct from an American perspective. International law is a whole different ballgame and what is sanctioned as permissible or in violation of international law under the United Nations. It is essential that these legal discussions take place and Americans, and non-American alike, be educated on the issues so that the legality of state action is assessed and understood.

Zeina Rammal, Esq.