The nominee to be the top lawyer at the Pentagon told senators that a new war authorization would be needed for US forces to remain in Syria after the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Paul Ney made the comments on Thursday, at his confirmation hearing. Ney was tapped by President Trump to be the chief lawyer for the Defense Department.
The analysis could complicate war plans laid out by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Last month, Tillerson called for an indefinite US military presence in Syria to, among other things, counter Iran’s influence in the country.
Ney had been pressed during the hearing by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) about the authorization for US operations in Syria, post-ISIS.
“Are you aware of any legal rationale that would justify the US maintain a physical presence in a sovereign nation against their interests for the purpose of checking Iran?” Kaine asked.
“Senator, I am not aware of that intent nor am I aware of the legal authority that supports that sort of activity that you’ve just characterized.” Ney responded.
According to the New York Times, Tillerson was explicit about a prolonged US force in Syria acting as a check against Iran.
“The United States has five key goals in Syria, Mr. Tillerson said,” according to the paper. They include preventing the re-emerge of ISIS, sweeping Syria for weapons of mass destruction, and “diminishing Iran’s influence.”
There are at least 2,000 US troops and contractors operating in Syria right now tasked primarily with defeating ISIS. That mission, according to Ney, is supported by the 2001 Authorization for Military Force (AUMF).
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned how such an authority could be used seventeen years later against an enemy not explicitly included in the original AUMF.
“I don’t understand how you think Congress could have intended to authorize operations against an organizations that didn’t even exist yet,” Warren said. “It looks to me like you’re using outdated legal authority here.”
Ney responded by noting that both the Obama administration and the Trump administration “view ISIS as the product of the metastasis of al-Qaeda.”
US soldiers in Syria, however, are increasingly engaged in firefights with forces not aligned with ISIS.
The US-led coalition on the ground killed a reported 100 Syrian government soldiers in an air and artillery barrage on Wednesday.
The coalition claimed the attack was carried out in self-defense, after regime troops assaulted headquarters belonging to Syrian Democratic Forces that also housed US advisers.