Reaction to U.S. action in Syria evolves over years for Nevada congressional delegation
U.S. military strikes against the Syrian government have elicited sharp reactions from Nevada’s congressional delegation — though some responses seemed to have changed based on political conditions and the president’s political party.
The Trump administration has twice directly engaged in limited attacks against the Assad government following apparent chemical weapon attacks, once in April 2017 and again just last week.
Former President Barack Obama threatened the use of military action against the Assad government in 2012 if it used chemical weapons, but many in Congress balked at the idea of authorizing military intervention in the country after a 2013 chemical weapons attack that left hundreds dead. The Syrian conflict began as a civil uprising against the government of Bashar al-Assad in 2011, and has lead to deaths of 465,000 Syrians and the displacement of more than 12 million people.
The strikes have also raised questions about the legal justification of the president making unilateral strikes against another country without direct approval from Congress. Some experts have said the administration could rely on the 2001 and 2002 authorized use of military force (AUMF) legislation giving the administration a wide breadth to pursue terrorist groups connected with the 9/11 attacks.
On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators including Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker and Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine updating the 2001 and 2002 AUMF authorizing a broad range of military action against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Half of Nevada’s congressional delegation has been in office since the initial 2013 debate over military action in Syria, and the other three were elected before the two attacks against the Assad government in 2017 and 2018.
Responses toward military intervention have been mixed among delegation members — the two Republicans, Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei, staunchly opposed intervention in 2013, but have either softened their tone or just stopped publicly addressing the overseas military action over the past two years.
Below, we’ve outlined how the delegation has reacted to the military strikes in Syria over the past five years, and how if their responses have or haven’t changed.
In 2013, Heller announced he would oppose to any strategic attacks in Syria, as they have “the potential to become an act of war.”
“Before I vote to put members of Nevada’s families in harm’s way, a full justification for war must be provided,” he said in a statement at the time. “After extensive discussions with the White House and those concerned about the constitutionality of military intervention, I do not believe a strategic attack on Syria is in the best interest of the United States at this time.”
The Republican senator was one of 29 who publicly came out in opposition to the Obama Administration’s request for authorization for a military strike against the Middle Eastern country, and broke with fellow Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who supported military strikes.
But Heller changed his tune in 2017, when the Trump administration ordered the firing of 59 missiles at a Syrian government airbase in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun that left at least 74 dead. Heller blamed the attacks on the Assad government, calling them “barbaric and a clear violation of international law.”
“The Administration sent a clear message of America's intolerance for the murder of innocent civilians,” he said at the time. “I will continue to monitor the situation closely and will rely on our military experts to provide more information that sheds light on last night’s - and future – developments.”
His office published a largely similar statement following additional American strikes in Syria a week after an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma that left several dozen dead.
“The Administration’s response sent a clear message to the Assad regime and its allies: America will not tolerate a chemical attack on innocent civilians,” Heller said last week. “I will continue to closely monitor the situation, and I will rely on our military experts to provide more information as it develops.”
Although Heller’s office did not respond to emailed questions about his support for a new AUMF, he was one of three Republican senators in 2017 to vote in favor of a proposal by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to repeal the 2001 version of the legislation.
Catherine Cortez Masto
The freshman Democratic senator has taken a more hawkish view than some of her colleagues on American intervention in Syria.
Following the Trump administration’s missile strikes in April 2017, Cortez Masto said in a statement that she supported the “proportional response to this atrocity,” but added that “any further military action against the Syrian regime should be debated and approved by Congress.”
She took a slightly different tack following the missile strikes against Syria this year, stating that Assad’s government should be held “accountable” and that the use of chemical weapons were “unacceptable under any circumstances,” but urged the administration to issue a “plan” addressing her concerns with the Syrian conflict that also included a role for Congress.
“President Trump and his Administration must provide Congress with a clear plan for defeating ISIS and developing a political solution that brings peace to Syria and it’s long-suffering citizens, ensures the rights of Kurdish and moderate Sunni partners in Syria, and guarantees Congress’ future role in debating and authorizing any future military actions against the Syrian regime,” she said. “The American people, and this Congress, expect a plan from this Administration on how they will achieves these objectives.”
Cortez Masto was one of 13 Senate Democrats who voted to table a proposal repealing the 2001 AUMF in September 2017. In a statement sent to The Nevada Independent, her office said the senator was “reviewing” the updated AUMF proposed by Corker and Kaine.
“The Senator remains committed to providing the resources and support our men and women in uniform need to defend this nation while making sure that this, and any future President, are held accountable for not dragging our country into unnecessary conflicts,” Cortez Masto spokesman Ryan King said in a statement.
Along with Heller and Amodei, Titus has been in office throughout the entire Syrian conflict, and has remained consistently skeptical towards armed intervention throughout the years.
The Democratic congresswoman never committed to support or opposition of President Obama’s 2013 call for military action in the country, stating that option should undergo “serious deliberation and should be considered only when all reasonable diplomatic options are exhausted.”
She maintained a similar skepticism after the Trump administration ordered retaliatory strikes in April 2017, calling the chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces “another heinous crime” by the Assad government but asking the administration for a more complex strategy.
“As a Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I hope the Trump administration details to Congress and the country a long-term strategy that helps bring stability to the region and end the massacre of innocent lives,” she said. “The complexities of the crisis in Syria cannot be taken lightly or solved with bombs. Military force should always be an option of last resort.”
Titus, and freshman Rep. Ruben Kihuen, both signed on to a February 2018 letter to Speaker Paul Ryan requesting a vote and debate over a new AUMF on the “ongoing deployment” of U.S. military in Syria. She referenced that position after the 2018 attacks on chemical weapons factories,
“I continue to call on the President to come to Congress for a new authorization of the use of military force,” she said last week. “Last year the United States engaged in an isolated strike following another chemical attack by Russia-backed Syrian forces. That strike did little to end the violence or prevent continued loss of life.”
In response to questions from The Nevada Independent, Titus said neither AUMF approved in 2001 or 2002 covered military response against the Syrian government, and neither should be considered a “blank check for any military force in the Middle East.”
“Trump himself claimed his authority to conduct the strikes in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons comes from Article II constitutional authority rather than an existing AUMF, meaning he needs to come to Congress now for any further use of force in response to the regime’s chemical weapons attacks,” she said in an email. “Many of my colleagues and I have continued to call for a long-term Syria strategy, and the Administration thus far has failed to present Congress with one.”
Her office said in a statement that it would be premature to support a new AUMF, such as the one proposed by Corker and Kaine, without “more cohesive information” from the Trump administration.
Rosen, a freshman Democrat now seeking to challenge Heller’s re-election bid, said the 2017 chemical weapons attack resulted in “catastrophic loss of life and irreversible damage to the region” while immediately calling for an AUMF reauthorization following the U.S. bombing.
“I believe that it is necessary for Congress to pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) for any further military action targeting the Assad regime,” she said at the time. “As Representatives, it is our duty to oversee the safety and security of our men and women in uniform, and of our citizens. The President owes the American people a clear strategy and answers on how our country will move forward.”
Rosen made no mention of the AUMF in a statement following the bombings last week, calling them a “forceful and targeted response” while asking the Trump Administration to “work with Congress to develop a coherent and effective long-term plan to put an end to the conflict in Syria.”
The freshman Democrat called the 2017 chemical weapon attack “unacceptable,” but said he had “serious concerns” with the U.S.’s long-term strategy in Syria.
“President Trump must come before Congress and lay out his vision for defeating ISIS and stabilizing the Middle East,” he said at the time. “The United States needs to work alongside the international community and with allies in the region to prevent President Assad from destabilizing his country and harming the people of the Syria.”
He largely echoed criticisms of Assad’s government following the 2018 chemical weapons attack, while criticizing the president for not providing Congress with a “coherent strategy” for U.S. involvement in the region.
“It’s been almost a year to date since President Trump first made the decision to commit U.S. military resources to Syria,” he said. “And yet, he has failed to heed not only my calls, but those of scores of colleagues in the House and Senate who have implored him to present Congress with a coherent strategy for the Middle East. The president owes it to the American people to lay out his vision for success before placing our armed forces in harm’s way.”
Amodei has not publicly addressed either the 2017 or 2018 strikes by U.S. forces against the Syrian government, and his office did not respond to a request for comment on the strikes or if he would support a new AUMF.
The Republican congressman staunchly opposed U.S. intervention in 2013, saying in a statement at the time that Americans and NEvadans were “united in opposition” to plans attacking Syria.
“The lack of any discernible foreign policy strategy on the part of the Administration is unnerving and embarrassing,” he said in 2013. “The only driving force appears to be their off-the-cuff misstatements, from the President’s ‘a redline for us’ to Secretary Kerry’s ‘unbelievably small, limited kind of effort’ to his musings on the possibility of Assad’s chemical weapons being turned over to ‘the international community’. That these bipolar gaffes are followed by disavowals and then claims that it was the plan all along further underscores the leadership vacuum, which is apparently being filled by Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
Amodei and former Republican Rep. Joe Heck were also part of a group of 100 congressional members who sent a letter to the former president requesting that he obtain congressional approval before launching any strikes against the Syrian government.