Tactical

Senate votes to keep US troops in Syria amid Iran-backed attacks

WASHINGTON ― The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly voted down a bill 13-84 that would have required President Joe Biden to withdraw the roughly 900 troops stationed in Syria.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., secured a vote on the bill after an onslaught of attacks from Iran-backed proxies in recent months targeting U.S. forces in the war-torn country. These militias have launched at least 76 attacks on U.S. forces in both Syria and Iraq since Oct. 7, which marked the start of Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip following Hamas’ massacre of Israelis.

“It seems to me, though our 900 troops have no viable mission in Syria, that they’re sitting ducks,” Paul said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. “They’re a tripwire to a larger war, and without a clear-cut mission, I don’t think they can adequately defend themselves, yet they remain in Syria.”

“Our troops in Syria regularly come under attack, not from ISIS but from Iranian-backed militias,” he added, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

The Biden administration carried out retaliatory airstrikes on Iran-backed militias in Syria in response to the attacks, including strikes on weapons, ammunition, storage and training facilities.

Further compounding matters, Turkey bombarded U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria in September after a group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, attacked the Interior Ministry in Ankara.

“We also had American troops take fire from our own NATO ally Turkey,” Paul said. “Just this past September, we returned the favor by shooting down an armed Turkish drone that came within 500 yards of U.S. forces.”

But the overwhelming majority of Republicans and Democrats sided with the Biden administration and opted to vote in favor of keeping the 900 troops in Syria.

“Passage of such a resolution would be a gift to Iran and its terrorist network,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said ahead of the vote. “Driving American troops from the Middle East is exactly what they’d like to see.”

“It would encourage Iran’s proxies to open a northern front in the territorial war against Israel,” he added, referring to the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, told reporters in October that he is drafting a military authorization for the Biden administration to strike Iran-backed proxy forces throughout the Middle East, which he would mark up if the Israel-Hamas war escalates into a broader regional conflict.

The United States stationed troops in Syria in 2014 as part of its campaign to topple the ISIS caliphate, citing as legal justification the 2001 military authorization Congress passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Four presidents have used the 2001 military authorization to justify more than 40 military operations in at least 19 countries across the globe, including in Syria and Iraq.

Paul’s resolution, which the Senate voted down, stated the 2001 military authorization does not apply to Syria. He made a similar argument in a separate resolution to withdraw the roughly 1,100 U.S. troops stationed in Niger. The Senate also voted down that resolution 11-86 in October.

The House in March also voted to keep U.S. troops in Syria, voting down 103-321 a similar withdrawal resolution from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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