When President Obama sent his war authorization resolution over to Capitol Hill he said the purpose of the military action was to "hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out."
However, the wording of the resolution reveals a back story. The most prominent purpose it announces for U.S. military action in Syria is the prevention of "the transfer [of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction] to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors."
Recall that the United States is not a neutral party to this conflict with the intent of enforcing an international rule against the use of chemical weapons. Rather the U.S. is actively supporting rebel forces and calling for the ouster of Assad. Recall as well that most all observers count both 'good' and 'bad' armed groups among the disparate rebels.
It is likely that if the U.S. achieves its policy aim of removing Assad from power his government will fall in a manner more chaotic than the preferred Geneva-negotiated accord. In that event the security of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles will be compromised and some will likely fall into the hands of 'bad' rebel elements, not to mention Hezbollah or free agent elements of the disintegrating Syrian armed forces, previously loyal to Assad.
What is most worrisome in the broad scope of this authorization is that it gives the president full permission to take ongoing military action against potential and actual proliferation agents in and beyond Syria. U.S. military operations could extend to Lebanon and even, by some considerable stretch of potential proliferation linkages, to Iran.
A punishment raid is one thing, but using armed force to attempt to prevent proliferation from Syria is very different sort of activity. In the event of a chaotic collapse of the Assad regime and the disintegration of the Syrian military U.S. air-strikes alone will not be able to stop proliferation of the chemical weapons. It will take many thousands of allied soldiers on the ground to make a reasonable attempt to prevent those weapons from getting into the hands of the armed 'bad' guys.
The value of the constitutionally mandated involvement of Congress in the process of going to war is demonstrated by what has happened to Obama's proposed resolution once it arrived on Capitol Hill. The Chairman and the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drafted a revised authorization resolution in consultation with other Senate leaders (and presumably the White House.) It makes three important changes that narrow the focus of the original resolution:
• limiting the extent of the authorization to 90 days;
• authorizing operations only in Syria; and
• it does "not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations."
The time and geographical limitations are of great importance. The likelihood of proliferation of chemical weapons to "bad" Syrian non-state elements and foreign agents is quite low within the 90 days of authorized military action and the resolution cannot be used during that time to legitimize strikes against targets in other states.
Regarding not authorizing the use of ground forces for "the purpose of combat operations", seasoned Congressional national security expert Winslow Wheeler notes that this provision would "not exclude ground forces introduced for other purposes (such as 'humanitarian' operations, peace keeping, or an 'emergency' to seize chemical weapons stocks)." In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Secretary of State John Kerry stated:
... in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.
Kerry later sought to clarify his position saying, "...what I was doing was hypothesizing about a potential it might occur at some point in time, but not in this authorization." That may be true, but all must be aware that the authorized military actions may well contribute to the creating the conditions that will require the ground troops later on.
So it appears that in order to avoid taking options off the table the revised resolution still has a loophole for other types and occasions of military intervention in Syria, including the use of U.S. ground forces. It simply doesn't explicitly authorize those military operations at this time. It will remain important for the American people to attend to future potentials Kerry referenced in his testimony and for Congress to assert its role in authorizing any future uses of U.S. Armed Forces in the Middle East.