The U.S. resumed its counterterrorism efforts under President Joe Biden, who ordered a targeted airstrike in Syria against Iranian-backed militia groups on February 25. CNBC reports that the controversial action was solely directed by the President without conferring with Congress While congressional leadership was briefed by the Pentagon a day before the airstrikes were launched, they did not pass an authorization for the use of force in Syria.
According to CNN, Biden justified his decision as a “necessary and proportionate” response to rocket attacks in Erbil, Iraq, conducted by Iranian-backed militias. The attacks, which occurred on Feb. 15, injured a number of U.S. forces and killed one Filipino contractor. As a result, Biden called upon a state’s inherent right to self-defense, per Article 51 of the United Nations (UN) Charter, and the President’s role as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military, per Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, as the basis for his actions.
The airstrikes were a “relatively small, carefully calibrated military response” in which seven 500-pound bombs were dropped on a small cluster of buildings belonging to Iranian-backed militias, according to The New York Times. The targeted area was an unofficial crossing at the Syria-Iraq border used as a weapons and fighter smuggling route. Biden discussed the strikes with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who agreed that those responsible for the previous rocket attacks should be held accountable. It was strategically decided to strike just over the Syrian border to avoid diplomatic blowback for the Iraqi government, a key partner for the U.S. in the continued War on Terror. The action destroyed multiple facilities used by the militia troops.
COVID-19 has presented a complex, multifaceted challenge for states and terrorist organizations alike. The Brookings Institute reports that resulting policy shifts are likely to reorder national security policies, pushing counterterrorism commitments abroad out of the spotlight. However, while increased travel restrictions have disrupted terrorist organization and their operations , they have also taken advantage of local governments becoming overstretched while mitigating the ongoing spread of the virus to plan attacks, such as the one in Erbil, and increase their recruitment efforts.
A UN report noted that since the beginning of the pandemic, there may have been an increased number of youth and children accessing extremist content online, as terrorist organizations try to exploit the global increase in the use of the internet and social media by disseminating propaganda and misinformation to radicalize potential recruits. As terrorists continue to adapt their online narratives while states see an overall relaxation of safeguards, compliance measures, and oversights, experts predict that a spike in terrorist operations in a post-pandemic world is likely.
Biden’s actions can be considered a warning to terrorist organizations operating domestically and abroad that the U.S. is pursuing a return to its anti-terrorism agenda. Business Insider reported that the strikes carried out in Syria aimed to prevent future attacks against America and Coalition personnel and were focused on operational infrastructure. Any significant casualties were not intended, and the Pentagon stated that the Syrian airstrikes were legally justified under domestic and international law.
The decision was met with a mixed bipartisan response. While many support the strike for making it clear that the Biden administration will not allow attacks on Americans to go unanswered, there is an expanding congressional movement to limit presidential war powers. Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia argued that “offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstance” within which the strikes in Syria does not fall. Some Republican senators have similarly condemned the strikes for being unauthorized.