Military strikes bombard Syria: Is America at war with Islamic State?

The airstrikes and waves of Tomahawk missiles launched against the Islamic State in Syria overnight will not lead to a ground war, President Obama says. But this doesn't preclude other types of war.

Robert Burck/US Navy/AP
An A-18E Super Hornet and an F/A-18F Super Hornet prepare to launch from the USS George H.W. Bush in the Arabian Gulf Tuesday to conduct strike missions against the Islamic State targets in Syria.

The US military moved its bombing campaign into Syria overnight Monday with the goal of destroying Islamic State headquarters and bases. In doing so, has it entered a new war?

The Pentagon’s actions overnight certainly look a lot like war, though the Pentagon calls it “military action” or “strikes” against IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL. 

“I can confirm that US military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against ISIL terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber, and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary, said in a statement released as the campaign began.

This marks a considerable expansion of US operations against IS, and America’s first foray into Syria’s raging civil war. 

By 6 a.m. the Pentagon was sending out video of a guided-missile cruiser, the USS Philippine Sea – part of the USS George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group – launching waves of Tomahawk “Land-Attack” missiles to bombard IS training camps, fighters, and weapons depots.

The Pentagon’s Director of Operations, Lt. Gen. William Mayville, showed reporters before and after pictures of the ISIL Command and Control Center Raqqa, Syria, bombed by stealth F-22 Raptors. 

“You are seeing the beginning of a sustained campaign, and strikes like this can be expected in the future,” he said. 

The idea of this being a war actually came up the day before, when reporters quizzed White House spokesman Josh Earnest. One reporter asked about the cost of the war, and Mr. Earnest didn’t challenge the term.

“I haven’t heard you use the word ‘war,’ ” the reporter noted to Earnest. 

“Yeah, I have – a couple of times,” Earnest replied. “But you’re raising an important issue.”

It is the belief of President Obama “that ISIL has declared war on the broader international community,” he said. “And that means that the international community is at war with ISIL and the United States is at war with ISIL in the same way that we’re at war with Al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe.” 

The White House has tended to prefer the more antiseptic phrase “degrade and destroy” when explaining the campaign to the American public. “We will not get dragged into another ground war,” Mr. Obama has emphasized. 

This does not, however, preclude other types of war.

If it is a war, does Obama need approval from Congress? Obama said he does not, but that he would “welcome” it. 

While the War Powers Act requires the president to seek congressional approval within 60 days of launching military action, the White house has invoked the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Al Qaeda.

Like the Bush administration, the Obama White House has argued that the AUMF allows the commander in chief to pursue Al Qaeda in order to protect national security. Last night's airstrikes also hit Khorasan, a terrorist group linked with Al Qaeda. 

The White House has said that the Khorasan group was led by a figure who was once in Osama bin Laden’s inner circle and was planning attacks that represented an “imminent threat” to the homeland.

The lack of debate seems to suit lawmakers heading into midterm elections. “A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, ‘Just bomb the place and tell us about it later,’ ” Rep. Jack Kingston (R) of Georgia said earlier this month, as he endeavored to push for an authorization vote. “We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”

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