Legislation directing President Joe Biden to remove some 900 U.S. troops from Syria within 180 days was soundly defeated in the House on Wednesday as opponents of the measure warned that it could allow a dismantled Islamic State group to reorganize and endanger the U.S. and its allies.
The resolution introduced by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., was voted down 321-103. Gaetz introduced the measure after four U.S. servicemembers were wounded during a helicopter raid last month in northeastern Syria that killed a senior IS leader. Despite their defeat in Syria, IS sleeper cells still conduct attacks around Syria and Iraq where they once declared a “caliphate.”
In arguing for his legislation, Gaetz said he didn't believe that “what stands between a caliphate and not a caliphate are the 900 Americans who have been sent to this hellscape with no definition of victory."
Support is growing in Congress for ending decades-old authorizations for the use of American military force. A Senate panel on Wednesday approved a bill 13-8 that seeks to formally end the authorizations for the Gulf and Iraq wars. But Gaetz's effort was too abrupt for many Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the U.S. was involved last year in operations with partners that killed 466 ISIS operative and detained 250 others. He said that if the U.S. withdraws troops now, it could lead to the resurgence of ISIS.
“Withdrawal of this legal, authorized U.S. troop deployment must be based on the total defeat of ISIS,” McCaul said.
The ranking Democratic member of the committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, said he opposes an indefinite U.S. military presence in Syria, but said of Gaetz's bill: “This measure forces a premature end to our mission at a critical time for our efforts."
IS lost all territorial control in Iraq and Syria in 2019, following a years-long U.S.-backed campaign that defeated the so-called caliphate, where Raqqa was once the IS de facto capital. But militant sleeper cells persist and have since killed scores of Iraqis and Syrians. Syrian Kurdish and U.S. forces frequently conduct raids targeting IS sleeper cells in northern and eastern Syria.
“The hard truth is this, either we fight them in Syria or we'll fight them here,” said Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont. “Either we fight and defeat them in Syria, or we'll fight them in the streets of our nation.”
Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley made a surprise visit to Syria to get updates on the U.S. counter-IS mission, review force protection measures and assess repatriation efforts for a sprawling refugee camp housing tens of thousands of mostly IS-linked women and children.
The legislation attracted support from some of the same conservatives who oppose continuing aid to Ukraine. Some say the money would be better spent boosting security on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the legislation also attracted support from several of the chamber's more liberal Democratic lawmakers. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who voted for the measure, said the core of the bill was to underscore that it is the job of Congress to “determine where and when we go to war, take on hostilities.”
In the end, 47 Republicans voted for the bill with 171 opposing, while 56 Democratic lawmakers voted for the bill with 150 opposing.