What the Iraq war powers repeal means for US forces in the Middle East

GettyImages-1861142.jpg
7 min read
04 April, 2023

On 30 March, the US Senate voted to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that was passed by Congress in October 2002.

The bipartisan measure comes at a time when the US public has demonstrated a preference at the ballot box for electing officials that favour ending US military interventions abroad.

Regarding foreign policy, the mood in American politics has changed significantly since the immediate years that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The bill also includes repealing the AUMF that allowed US forces to intervene in the 1991 Gulf War.

For the Biden Administration, however, the future of the US role in the Middle East remains fraught, as the White House seeks to confront regional adversaries such as the Islamic State (IS) and ward off Iranian-supported militias.

"Although the end of the 2002 AUMF that facilitated the entry of the United States into Iraq appears to be in sight, the role of the US military in the region will continue into the foreseeable future"

Legislative housekeeping

In March, twenty years had passed since the US launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, a controversial invasion that deeply damaged the United States’ reputation with the international community.

“The 2002 AUMF is a vestigial authority dating back to the congressional decision to authorise Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Jonathan Lord, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told The New Arab.

“While multiple administrations have interpreted the language as giving the [Department of Defence] authority to target threats within Iraq, the language itself references the Baathist government, which was toppled 20 years ago,” Lord added.

The 9th of April also marks twenty years to the day when the statue of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled by the US military in Baghdad's Firdos Square.

Iraq Report
Inside MENA
Live Story

“This represents legislative ‘housekeeping’. The DoD has made clear it doesn’t use or plan to use the authority, and President Biden supports its repeal,” he said.

The quest to put the AUMF out to pasture was a long time coming. The US House of Representatives had previously voted in June 2021 to repeal the measure when the Democratic Party controlled the House. Following the 2022 midterms, the Republicans have gained a majority in the House.

“While the Senate has voted to repeal, it remains the law until the House votes to support its repeal, before going to the President for his signature,” Lord said.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has indicated he would support the repeal but wants a separate AUMF signed in 2001 to remain in place. The language contained in the 2001 AUMF specifically tasks the US military to fight the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.

A US soldier from Bravo Company, 1st Battallion, 38 regiment infantry searches a building for possible suspects during a patrol in Baquba, 60 km north of Baghdad, on 20 November 2007. [Getty]

“In the eyes of the world, there have been questions about our military operations, including covert operations and drone strikes that have happened in several nations around the world under the orders of the president,” Myles Caggins III, a retired US Army Colonel, former spokesperson for the Global Coalition to combat IS, and Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told The New Arab.

“Getting Congress back into the process of determining where we wage war, brings the American people into the process,” Caggins noted. “Americans elect their representatives and their representatives should have a voice into where the military is deployed,” adding that the US had a volunteer military.

“Congress should not abdicate its role in providing guidance and funding to the administration for the conduct of combat operations and counter-terrorism operations around the world,” said Caggins. 

"Despite concerns from many in Washington about the increasing influence of China in the Middle East, the United States by far remains the more significant military power in the region"

Changing nature of US national security threats

A drone attack on US military positions in northeastern Syria on 23 March led to the death of a US contractor.

Following an exchange of US air strikes and retaliations with Iranian-backed militias in Syria last month, the United States military sought to reinforce its position in the Middle East. CNN reported that the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group would stay on in the Mediterranean Sea, along with the addition of a squad of A-10  Warthog attack aircraft.

“It will clarify our operations as the world has shifted in the nature of violent extremist organisations,” Caggins said regarding the repeal of the 2002 AUMF.

“Al-Qaeda and its associated forces have changed associations since 2002. Repealing the AUMF and potentially issuing new ones will refine the parameters in which the United States will conduct military, diplomatic, and legal operations around the world,” said Caggins.

Analysis
Live Story

Shortly after the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) was formed in Syria with support from the late IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It broke off from IS in 2013 and later ended its affiliation with Al-Qaeda in 2016.

The US has carried out sporadic air strikes targeting Hurras Al-Din, a militant group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, in Syria’s Idlib Province.

“IS is a group whose founders had different goals and ambitions than Al-Qaeda. Sometimes they’ve been opposed to each other,” Caggins explained. “If we want to have ongoing operations against IS in Iraq and Syria or other designated geographic locations, that could be its own AUMF.”

In January, Iraq’s new prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, shared his desire to keep 2,000 US troops in Iraq to help with training and intelligence efforts against IS.

The US also maintains approximately 900 troops in northeastern Syria to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia, which Washington trusts as the most reliable local force to combat IS.

US forces Syria - Getty
The US maintains approximately 900 troops in northeastern Syria to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia. [Getty]

Although the US forces in Syria have come under attack, Washington indicated it was committed to staying on in support of the SDF to combat IS.

However, the United States’ policies in Syria remain limited. Neither the White House nor Congress has taken any measures to significantly increase the SDF’s capacity to build a separate political entity in eastern Syria. This includes no official recognition for a semi-autonomous Rojava, which the Syrian Kurds wish to establish.

The Syrian regime has vowed to resist the US presence in the country, since Damascus has not invited the US military onto its territory. Both the Iranians and the Syrian regime will attempt to pressure the US into withdrawing from the country’s northeast.

In a recent hearing with Congress, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Army Gen. Mark Milley, who visited the US forces in Syria in early March, advocated for “harshly” targeting the Iranian IRGC’s Quds Force in Syria.

"For the Biden Administration, the future of the US role in the Middle East remains fraught"

Aside from Iran, Russia has also voiced its opposition to US activities in Syria in the aftermath of the recent confrontation between the US military and pro-Iranian elements.

The prospect of the US becoming entangled in a wider confrontation with Iran or Russia is still a possibility. However, the Biden Administration ultimately wishes to avoid an escalation with Iran in Syria. 

“The repeal should have no impact on the DoD’s footprint or activities. It continues to draw authority to counter IS in Iraq and Syria under the 2001 AUMF,” Lord explained, adding that it has additional authority to train and equip partners against IS in Iraq and Syria through the authorities provided in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

“[The United States] can defend itself from anyone, if attacked, under the powers granted under Article II of the Constitution,” Lord said.

Despite concerns from many in Washington about the increasing influence of China in the Middle East, the United States by far remains the more significant military power in the region.

Although the end of the 2002 AUMF that facilitated the entry of the United States into Iraq appears to be in sight, the role of the US military in the region will continue into the foreseeable future.

Christopher Solomon is a Middle East analyst, researcher, editor, and writer based in the Washington DC area. He works for a US defence consultancy and is the author of the book, In Search of Greater Syria (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury). Christopher is a Co-Editor for Syria Comment and a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Follow him on Twitter: @Solomon_Chris