Grey areas in US resolution against ISIS

Grey areas in US resolution against ISIS
Militant Islamist fighters hold the flag of Islamic State (IS) while taking part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province in this June 30, 2014 file photo.

AS FAR as congressional documents go, United States President Barack Obama's resolution to authorise the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) looks like a straightforward read.

It is slightly over two pages long, with all the interesting bits concentrated in a few lines at the end.

One states that the authorisation shall terminate in three years unless re-authorised and another prohibits the use of "US Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations".

Yet, trying to make sense of just these two provisions is more complicated than it seems.

When taken into context with the President's existing powers and the other war powers resolutions that are still active, the provisions put forward by the Obama administration are confusing.

The clause calling for the authorisation to be renewed three years after it is first enacted is likely a nod to Democratic Party concerns about getting involved in an endless war.

Mr Obama stressed in his speech explaining the resolution that the provision is there not to serve as a timetable, but to force lawmakers to revisit the issue when his successor takes office.

"It's conceivable that the mission is completed earlier.

It's conceivable that after deliberation, debate and evaluation, there are additional tasks to be carried out in this area.

And the people's representatives, with a new president, should be able to have that discussion," he said.

But the problem is that the deadline does not appear to be enforceable.

At the heart of the issue is that the new resolution does not attempt to repeal the existing resolution granted by Congress to former president George W. Bush in 2001.

That 14-year-old resolution was drafted following the Sept 11 attacks and it grants sweeping powers to presidents to act against entities linked to those attacks.

Unlike the new version this year, it does not have an expiry date.

In fact, the 2001 resolution has been so broad- based that the Obama administration has been using it for the past six months as justification for its campaign against ISIS, even though the militant group was not a threat at the time the resolution was passed.

Mr Obama has emphasised the symbolic nature of the new resolution, since he already has all the legal justification he needs for the ongoing air strikes against ISIS.

But a symbolic resolution puts forward only symbolic restrictions.

When the authorisation expires in three years, the next president can seemingly continue to act based on the deadline-free 2001 resolution.

Then there is the altogether more complex provision prohibiting "enduring offensive ground combat operations".

The terms have no established military or legal precedent and are therefore open to interpretation.

Nearly every word in the phrase raises questions.

For instance, just how long must an operation last for it to be enduring? Also, what exactly constitutes "ground combat operations"?

In Mr Obama's speech, he outlined a scenario in which the resolution would allow him to deploy ground forces, such as using special forces to strike ISIS leaders.

But he already seemingly had the authority to deploy special forces and has used them in a variety of missions, from killing Osama bin Laden in 2011 to trying to rescue ISIS hostages, such as US aid worker Kayla Mueller.

It is therefore not clear how, if at all, the resolution is meant to impact how Mr Obama can deploy troops.

These are but the two largest grey areas.

There are numerous others, including something as fundamental as who the resolution applies to.

For instance, if the US engages in an operation against an entity such as Al-Nusra Front, which has ties to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, will it be acting under the authority of the 2001 resolution or the 2015 one?

Ultimately, as Georgia State University political science professor John Duffield told The Straits Times, it is difficult to figure out what the administration had in mind.

"The language seems to rule out only long- term offensive ground operations similar to those conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not much else."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Feb 13, 2015.
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