Is President Joe Biden about to become a war president? He conducted an airstrike on Thursday against Iran-backed militias in Syria. Iraqi officials previously said that the strike, which targeted an eastern Syrian border-crossing station occupied by militant groups including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, left one fighter dead and wounded several others. According to a later estimate given by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the strike killed twenty-two militiamen and destroyed three trucks transporting munitions between Iraq and Syria.
The strike was “authorized in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. Earlier this month, a rocket attack linked to Iranian proxy groups killed a contractor and wounded a U.S. service member. “The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” added Kirby, also calling it a “proportionate military response.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that he recommended the action to Biden, likewise suggesting that the groundwork for the strike was laid in advance: “We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline. We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”
More than purely an act of retaliation, the strike may have been aimed at deflating Iranian confidence ahead of imminent negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. “The strike, the way I see it, was meant to set the tone with Tehran and dent its inflated confidence ahead of negotiations,” Bilal Saab, a former Pentagon official who currently serves as a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute, told the Washington Post. “You don’t want to enter into potential talks with Iran on any issue with a bruise to your face from the Irbil attacks.”
The strike caused international reverberations beyond the Washington-Tehran axis. The Syrian government vigorously condemned the action, calling it “a cowardly and systematic American aggression” while warning of unspecified consequences. “This aggression is a negative indication of the policies of the new American administration, which is supposed to adhere to international legitimacy, not to the law of the jungle,” read a statement by Syria’s foreign ministry.
Russia, a key geopolitical player in Syria and the broader Middle-East, issued a similarly scathing rebuke. “Our military was warned four or five minutes in advance,” said Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “Of course, this has no value even from the angle of deconfliction, as they say in relations between Russian and U.S. servicemen.” Some Russian politicians went further, citing the strike as evidence that the United States has no intention of winding down its military presence in Syria or pursuing de-escalatory policies in the Middle-East. “Obviously, the priorities of the new U.S. administration do not include peace on Syrian land and the war on terror,” said the chairman of the Russian state Duma’s foreign affairs committee, Leonid Slutsky. “The airstrike killed members of pro-Iranian units fighting for Syrian government forces, and the attack was launched without any charge or trial.”
The ensuing debate over the strike’s legality has spilled into U.S. domestic politics in a major way. Robert Malley’s earlier appointment as special envoy to Iran triggered the first significant foreign policy battle of Biden’s presidency, but one that was largely waged across partisan lines. By stark contrast, Biden’s Syria strike has triggered an avalanche of public criticism from high-profile Democrats. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine (D), a longtime Barack Obama ally and Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 presidential election, suggested that the strike was unconstitutional: “The American people deserve to hear the Administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress.” He added that “offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances. Congress must be fully briefed on this matter expeditiously.”
Connecticut Senator and Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Murphy (D) noted that “retaliatory strikes, not necessary to prevent an imminent threat, must fall within the definition of an existing congressional authorization of military force.” The progressive wing of the Democratic party was more blunt, with California Representative Ro Khanna (D) stating that there is “absolutely no justification” for the Syria strike. “We need to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate...I spoke against endless war with Trump, and I will speak out against it when we have a Democratic President,” Khanna added.
Simmering Democratic discontent over the Biden administration’s unilateral action in Syria comes amid a parallel effort, spearheaded by members of the President’s party, to convince Biden to renounce his sole authority to order nuclear strikes. Thirty-one lawmakers, led by California Representatives Jimmy Panneta and Ted Lieu, have submitted a joint letter urging the commander in chief to “consider modifying the decision-making process the United States uses in its command and control of nuclear forces.”
These rumblings in the first months of Biden’s presidency could be the bellwether of a larger, looming intra-party conflict, as Biden struggles to preserve the big tent coalition of foreign policy progressives and establishment figures that coalesced around him in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Mark Episkopos is the national security reporter for the National Interest.