White House National Security Adviser John Bolton told the media Monday that the US will continue to have a presence in Syria until Iran no longer does. Later in the day, Defense Secretary James Mattis contradicted Bolton’s stated mission – although he claimed otherwise – when talking to reporters at the Pentagon.
“We’re not going to leave [Syria] as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton told the Associated Press at the United Nations General Assembly, presumably referring to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps presence in Syria and Hezbollah.
That could put the US campaign in Syria in dubious legal territory. The US is prohibited from waging war without the consent of Congress, but has been able to battle groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Daesh and their affiliates in Africa and the Middle East because of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Terrorists. The bill was passed just three days after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 and allows the US to use “necessary and appropriate force” against the perpetrators. While Daesh didn’t exist in 2001, the Obama administration argued that the bill’s purview extended to the group as a successor of al-Qaeda.
It is difficult to imagine the Trump administration being able to make a similar argument in the case of Iran.