WASHINGTON — The House voted 103-321 on Wednesday against pulling U.S. troops out of Syria, rejecting a war powers resolution to do so introduced by Rep. Matt Gaetz.
The Republican from Florida used expedited procedures laid out under the War Powers Act to force a floor vote on the bill, which would have required the Biden administration to withdraw the approximately 900 troops stationed in Syria within six months. Democrats from the Congressional Progressive Caucus joined libertarian and America First-aligned Republicans in rallying behind the Gaetz resolution but fell short of the votes needed to pass it amid opposition from leaders in both parties.
“Congress has never authorized the use of military force in Syria,” Gaetz said in a statement upon introducing the bill last month. “The United States is currently not in a war with or against Syria, so why are we conducting dangerous military operations there? President [Joe] Biden must remove all U.S. armed forces from Syria.”
The Defense Department first deployed troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State group in 2014. That conflict also saw the return of U.S. forces to Iraq. U.S. troops have remained stationed in both countries under a 2001 military authorization, which Congress passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Four presidents have since used the 2001 military authorization to justify at least 41 military operations in at least 19 countries across the globe.
Since the territorial defeat of the so-called ISIS caliphate, the U.S. Defense Department has kept troops stationed in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, they remain split in the northeast — where they aid the Kurdish-majority administration’s fight against ISIS sleeper cells — and the southeast garrison of al-Tanf, which has become a frequent target of attack for Iran-backed militias.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Fla., and ranking member Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., both argued the U.S. troop presence in Syria is legal under the 2001 AUMF and urged their colleagues to vote against the Gaetz resolution.
“Even though ISIS no longer controls significant territory, there are still tens of thousands of hardened terrorist fighters in Iraq and Syria who are hellbent on establishing their terror state,” McCaul argued ahead of the vote.
House lawmakers also voted down 155-273 a National Defense Authorization Act amendment last year from Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., that would have required Biden to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria if Congress does not pass an authorization specifically for that mission. (The House rejected a similar Bowman amendment in 2021.)
Former President Donald Trump partially withdrew U.S. troops from the Syrian-Turkish border in 2019, paving the way for Ankara to launch a ground offensive against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shown interest in launching another offensive into northeast Syria, repeatedly issuing threats until the devastating earthquake last month that killed thousands in both countries.
But Gaetz indicated he was not worried that pulling U.S. troops out of the area would greenlight another Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurds.
“I don’t believe that our presence is deterring much of anything,” Gaetz told Defense News last week. “I think that it’s a risk of us escalating the conflict.”
Gaetz’s office noted he filed the bill after U.S. Central Command, which oversees Middle East military operations, disclosed that four service members were wounded in a raid against a senior ISIS official, Hamza al-Homsi.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley visited U.S. forces stationed in Syria on Saturday. Milley’s trip prompted protest from both the Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry in Damascus and Gaetz, who accused him of trying to “justify America’s continued involvement in a Middle Eastern civil war.”
Separately on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Iraq, where he vowed that U.S. troops would remain in the country at the invitation of Baghdad.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also advanced legislation on Wednesday that would repeal the 1991 and 2002 Iraq War authorizations. However, those repeals would not result in the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq, since they are stationed there under the 2001 authorization.
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.