Congress didn’t authorize war, but we’re in one now in Syria

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. and allies started punching at Islamic State militants on Monday with airstrikes in Syria, days after Congress agreed to equip and train Syrian rebel forces and during the week when global leaders meet at the United Nations.

What Congress never did was to specifically authorize a war. President Barack Obama, relying on a 2001 authorization to use military force in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, said he could order a strikewithout an authorization vote. Still, he encouraged Congress to show support.Now we’re in a war — with the goal to destroy the Islamic State militants, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

Related: Joint Chiefs chair: ‘No safe haven’ for militants

On Monday night, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement:

“I can confirm that U.S. 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.

“Given that these operations are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide additional details at this time. The decision to conductthesestrikes was made earlier today by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the commander in chief. We will provide more details later as operationally appropriate.”

The news about opening a new front against ISIL in Syria came as U.S. military forces continued attacks against ISIL in Iraq on Monday, using, according to the Pentagon, “a mix of attack, fighter and remotely piloted aircraft to conduct four airstrikes near the city of Kirkuk.”

A main target, according to reports — including from eyewitnesses on Twitter —is the Syrian city ofRaqqa, which ISIL has declared its “capital.”

Members went home last Thursday after sending President Barack Obama a bill to train “appropriately vetted” Syrian fighters. Lawmakers don’t return until November, after the midterm elections.

They passively and collectively agreed in their inaction that the more pragmatic political course was to defer any war authorization vote until after the midterms. For Obama and Democrats, the most important goal is to retain control of the Senate.

Last Thursday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said a new vote to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State group is “long overdue.” The thought was that the measure would be extremely narrow, ban U.S. troops on the ground and be operative for a specific time.

The airstrikes are likely the first volley in what will be a war that extends past Obama’s tenure in the White House.

The hits on Syria came after the State Departmenton Fridayreleased the names of more than 50 nations — including Arab countries — plus the European Union, Arab League and NATO, that are part of the U.S.-led “global effort” to destroy ISIL.

On Tuesday, Obama arrives in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly, where dealing with the ISIS threat is a top agenda item for the U.S. On Wednesday, Obama delivers a speech at the United Nations.

The chain of events starting with Monday’s attacks in Syria may dilute pressure for another authorization vote. No matter what happens in the midterms, Congress may be hesitant to deny Obama war authorization when in fact the U.S. is again at war.

As Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told me last week, “When Americans are engaged in battle, the opposition party should refrain from using any military reversals against the president; that once Americans engage against the forces of evil, ISIS, we should be pro-American.”

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