President Trump seemed visibly moved by the suffering of Syrian civilians in the wake of a brutal chemical attack in the country that killed over 89 civilians. However, there are far more effective ways for him to alleviate their plight than with military action that contravenes the Constitution.
Following the April 4 chemical attack, the president expressed his serious concerns about the humanitarian crisis: “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”
Within days, the president launched cruise missile attacks against a Syrian airbase. There is no doubt that that the use of chemical weapons against civilians in northern Syria was illegal and immoral. However, the ACLU objected to President Trump unilaterally launching strikes without advance congressional authorization. The Constitution is clear that only Congress can declare war and authorize the use of our armed forces, absent an emergency need to stop a sudden attack. And because the United Nations Security Council did not authorize the action, the strikes also violated the United Nations Charter.
Although the president did not have the legal authority to unilaterally launch last week’s strikes against the Syrian airbase, there are concrete actions that President Trump can and should take today to alleviate the cruel suffering of Syrian civilians. If the President genuinely cares about the “beautiful babies” in Syria, he should immediately undertake the following actions that are clearly within his legal authority and would provide immediate relief to Syrians fleeing persecution and violence.
First and foremost, the president should immediately withdraw his Muslim ban that has been blocked by several federal courts, and reopen America’s doors to all refugees in need of humanitarian protection. That would be a worthy and appropriate swift response. If the president is truly concerned for the lives of innocent Syrian civilians, he cannot continue to uphold a ban that locks those very civilians inside a burning barn and blocks them from seeking refuge in the U.S.
The U.S. refugee program has long been a critical, life-saving program that reflects our history as a compassionate country and our status as the world’s major superpower. The rigorous screening protocols that were in place when the president took office allow us to admit vulnerable refugees, while also safeguarding national security interests. Lifting the ban would allow the president to swiftly align U.S. refugee policy with his stated desire to protect Syrian civilians.
Second, the president must remove the deep foreign assistance cuts proposed in his budget, and provide full funding for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (also known as the U.N. Refugee Agency). This is necessary for the organization to better assist Syrian refugees in host countries and to increase the number of refugees that UNHCR can identify, screen, and refer to the U.S. and other resettlement countries.
Finally, for any further military action in Syria, the president must comply with the separation of powers principles in the Constitution. He must seek and obtain authority from Congress before using the military. Through public hearings and debate, Congress and the American people can fully consider both the reasons for — and the consequences of — going to war, along with the impact of the use of force on civilians, both abroad and at home.
While the ACLU does not take a position on whether military force should be used against Syria or any other country, we have consistently insisted that the Constitution gives Congress alone the power to declare war. Unfortunately, by cutting out Congress last week, President Trump missed the chance for a considered debate about the impact on refugees and other civilians before taking action.
The three actions outlined above are concrete steps that President Trump can and should take immediately to protect Syrian refugees. By providing refuge to those fleeing a brutal regime and violent terrorist elements within Syria, President Trump can truly deliver relief for the many “beautiful babies” of Syria.