Why did President Trump attack Syria?
This weekend the United States, the United Kingdom and France attacked Syria apparently to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons capability. The attack was triggered by Syria’s alleged poison gas attack against its own citizens in the rebel-held town of Douma.
The US said that missiles launched this weekend targeted three sites that were used for chemical weapons production in Syria. These include a research center and chemical weapon storage facilities.
Almost a year ago, Trump launched a similar attack against Syria. For more on the legality of that attack, read this post.
Did the President have the authority to attack Syria?
Here’s what the Constitution says: “The Congress shall have the power to… declare war […]” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 11) Hence, the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war and the President is not mentioned in the granting of that power.
The President, however, through Article II, gets the power to be the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”
Thus, Article I gives Congress the power to decide when war happens and Article II gives the President the authority to lead the army when Congress declares such war. Both branches – Legislative and Executive – have a symbiotic, or interdependent, constitutional relationship when it comes to war. Congress needs the President to direct the military and the President needs Congress to declare and fund the war.
Congress has not declared a war against Syria. Using force (missile strikes) against Syria is an act of war, no matter how honorable its motives. The President did not have the authority to unilaterally decide to engage in war against Syria. The fact that this was only “one” attack does not make it constitutional. What if Russia – an ally of Syria – would have attacked the United States in retaliation? We would have had to attack Russia back and engage in more war. Thus, the President’s action this weekend was an act of war and, without Congressional approval, unconstitutional.
It is for a reason that Congress passed the War Powers Act – a federal law intended to check on the President’s unilateral engagement in acts of war. This law states that the President can only attack or send military forces abroad by either a declaration of war by Congress or in a “national emergency” created by a direct attack against the United States or its armed forces. Consequently, this weekend’s attack also violated the War Powers Act.
The fact that Congress has mostly been silent about it and the fact that Obama acted in the same way many times before does not make it less unconstitutional. There is a reason why we have a Constitution and, at least in the past, Trump knew that very well: