WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s announcement of military strikes against the Syrian government drew initial support from prominent congressional Republicans but also quick condemnation from Capitol Hill critics who questioned the legality of the action.
In a national address Friday night, Trump said the assault — coordinated with French and English forces — was in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against the rebel-held town of Douma.
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons,” Trump said. “Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States.”
Pentagon officials notified congressional leaders of the military action on Friday night, though the specific timing of that alert was not released.
In a statement, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons “unacceptable” and in need of response.
“Equally concerning, the attack is part of a trend of Russian supported chemical weapons attacks across the world,” he said. “The United States and our allies cannot let these attacks stand. I support the President’s decision to undertake this strike together with our allies.
“Tough questions about the future of our policy in Syria remain, but those questions should not detract from the justness of tonight’s actions.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., called the airstrikes justified, but also added that “the administration needs to begin fully explaining its strategy in the months ahead.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., applauded Trump for the airstrikes. The message Iran and Russia, he said, is that they cannot protect the Syrian regime.
“To succeed in the long run, we need a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the entire region,” McCain said in a statement, “The president needs to lay out our goals, not just with regard to ISIS, but also the ongoing conflict in Syria and malign Russian and Iranian influence in the region.
“Airstrikes disconnected from a broader strategy may be necessary, but they alone will not achieve U.S. objectives in the Middle East.”
Democratic and libertarian Republican critics had a starkly different view.
“President Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against the Syrian government without Congress’s approval is illegal and — absent a broader strategy — it’s reckless,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
“Last week, President Trump was adamant that the U.S. was leaving Syria imminently. This week, he is opening a new military front. Assad must face consequences for his war crimes, but presidents cannot initiate military action when there isn’t an imminent threat to American lives.”
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., offered similar criticism.
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the use of chemical weapons was abhorrent, a violation of international law and “not something to ignore.” He and key Senate Democrats pressed Trump before the strike to offer Congress a legal justification first.
“President Trump’s impulsive tweets boxed him in,” Reed said. “Isolated punitive action is no replacement for a comprehensive strategy designed to bring about an end to the conflict in Syria – the only thing that will truly bring relief to the Syrian people.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement that “one night of airstrikes is not a substitute for a clear, comprehensive Syria strategy. The president must come to Congress and secure an (new military force authorization) by proposing a comprehensive strategy with clear objectives.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to debate new military force authorization in coming weeks, but that issue has been at a stalemate for years.
Republicans and Democrats have sparred over the limits of any new authorization, and both Trump’s and former President Barack Obama’s administrations have argued that existing agreements gave them adequate legal standing to conduct operations in Syria.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.