Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Democrats Are Divided About Syria

In Washington, the Democratic Party’s internal division about foreign policy is growing, and the American military presence in Syria last week was a clear proof. It was bizarre to hear President Biden tell the United Nations on September 21 that the United States for the first time in twenty years is not at war. The day before he had ordered an airstrike against a terrorist target in northwest Syria. Moreover, he also had ordered airstrikes against Iranian militias in eastern Syria in February and again in June. There is no serious discussion in the Biden administration about withdrawing the 900 American soldiers in eastern Syria. Biden even said in an ABC network interview in August that there are no American military forces in Syria. Like other American politicians, sometimes Biden has a slip of the tongue.

Slip or not, there is in Biden’s party a rising debate about Syria. One prominent member of the left wing of the Democratic Party, Jamal Bowman, a congressman from New York, last week manufactured a short debate to the House of Representatives about the American military mission in Syria. Bowman represents many low-income communities in New York city and like many others in the Democratic Party left, his priority is helping the poor and rebuilding infrastructure in the United States. Last week, Bowman proposed an amendment to the Defense Department budget that would require a vote in the Congress after 60 days to approve the continuing military presence. Bowman’s amendment confirms the authority from the Constitution to the Congress to declare a war. Seven years after the American military began fighting in Syria, Congress has still not voted to approve the military intervention and Obama, Trump and now Biden never explained a strategy or a plan for the American military forces in Syria. Bowman and his allies think that if the Congress sets a date to vote about the military presence in Syria the White House and Departments of Defense and State will finally try to explain their goals and strategies for Syria. And these leftist Democrats expect that the administration will not be able to discover achievable goals and a convincing strategy and so the Congress will reject the intervention and the monies that pay for it.

Bowman’s effort in the House of Representatives failed on September 23 as 141 House of Representatives members approved his amendment but 286 rejected it. Those who rejected Bowman’s proposal insisted that the United States cannot abandon the Kurds in Syria, and they emphasized the existing ISIS threat. The rejection has three big implications. First, the September 23 vote means that the Biden administration has time to think about its Syria policy without an immediate deadline from Congress. After Afghanistan, the Biden team is not in a hurry to leave Syria. Second, among the 141 who supported Bowman’s proposal were 21 Republicans. (188 Republicans rejected Bowman’s proposal.) Who were these 21 Republicans who wanted to end the American mission in Syria? They are the strongest supporters of President Trump in the House of Representatives, such as Andrew Biggs from Arizona and James Jordan from Tennessee. Trump wanted to withdraw from Syria also. Only at the last moment did officials at the Departments of State and Defense convince him to deploy American soldiers to control oilfields in Hassakeh and Deir Zour. Trump and his allies remain very powerful, perhaps the most powerful part of the Republican Party. It is remarkable that the extreme right and the left in American politics agree about Syria. The third and most important implication from the vote is inside the Democratic Party itself. Bowman’s proposal for a review and vote on Syria policy won approval from 120 Democratic Party representatives. Only 98 Democrats voted against it. The party leaders and Biden’s closest allies voted against Bowman’s proposal but most Democratic representatives rejected the leadership’s position. It appears that Democratic Party support for the Syria mission is not strong. This Syria vote, along with the debates inside the Democratic Party about Biden’s foreign policy on Palestine, and human rights, show the left wing of the party more and more critical of Biden and the Democratic party leadership on foreign policy issues. And the Democratic Party leaders need the enthusiasm and energy of the left wing of the party to succeed in the 2022 congressional elections and the 2024 presidential election. Foreign policy is normally not an important issue in American elections, but if disagreements inside the Democratic Party cause 3 or 4 percent of Democratic voters to abstain from voting, the Republicans will win the elections. The left wing knows this and Bowman will try again in Congress next year to end the American military presence in Syria.