After more than eight years of bloody warfare, it appears all but certain that President Bashar al-Assad and his regime will continue to rule Syria. Assad’s government has consolidated control, albeit a potentially fragile one, over the areas that historically powered the Syrian economy; in addition, Assad again rules over the majority of Syrians who remained in the country. As the international community begins to reckon with the probability that this regime will continue to hold the reins of power for the foreseeable future, the conversations in Washington have shifted to exacting higher costs on the regime as it seeks to wrest control over the remaining opposition strongholds. There are also calls demanding justice for Assad’s ruthless execution of the war.
In the month of May, members of Congress and of President Donald Trump’s administration have spoken publicly about the path forward for US policy toward Syria. The congressionally mandated and staffed Syria Study Group submitted its “Interim Assessment and Recommendations” to Congress at the beginning of the month. Then this week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) held a hearing with Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Trump Administration’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State (IS), to better understand the administration’s strategy in Syria.
Since the early days of the anti-Assad protests that later developed into a full-scale war, Bashar al-Assad has been accused of a litany of violent and destabilizing activities, especially war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, his secret police’s brutal policies and torture and murder of young Syrian protestors sparked even larger protests that the regime tried to put down ruthlessly. Since that time, Assad released violent suspected terrorists into rebel areas in order to split opposition and taint protesters as savage jihadists and used that to crack down on entire populations of rebel-held territory. Furthermore, Assad has used cluster bombs and chemical weapons in densely populated areas, both of which constitute war crimes according to international law.
Assad’s brutal campaign, one ostensibly targeting the formal armed opposition, has also killed a large number of civilians and resulted in a massive flow of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The regime’s sieges on Syrian cities likely rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the systematic dispossession and forced displacement of refugees and IDPs for the purpose of entrenching demographic changes are prohibited by law and, some would argue, constitute a form of ethnic cleansing. Finally, the Assad regime has operated a network of secret prisons for the purpose of torturing, killing, and “disappearing” Syrian activists or those who otherwise have run afoul of the regime.
Most members of the HFAC in attendance on May 22 were in agreement that Assad is not a legitimate head of state and thus is not worthy of normalization in his region or in the broader international community. Congress has long been skeptical of providing any kind of aid to areas under Assad’s control for fear of rehabilitating his rule, but Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) summed up many lawmakers’ lines of thinking when he said, “An Assad-run Syria should never be open for business.”
The Trump Administration’s Strategy
Although lawmakers on Capitol Hill—like the Trump Administration—understand the problems emanating from an Assad-led Syria. Congresspeople expressed confusion about the direction and consistency of the administration’s policies toward Syria. Ambassador Jeffrey attended the HFAC hearing to clarify the White House’s position on this issue.
Jeffrey outlined the three goals of the Trump Administration’s strategy in Syria and then he touched on the means for attaining its goals. First, the long-standing priority remains to assure the lasting defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Second, the administration will agitate for a full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syrian territory. Third, the administration hopes to realize a political solution to the conflict as set forth by UN Security Council resolution 2254.
To ensure the enduring defeat of IS, Jeffrey reiterated that White House policy is to work with the United States’ global coalition partners and operate a counterterrorism strategy on the ground in Syria “by, with, and through” local partners. As for the other two goals, the ambassador told the committee that the administration would leverage its maximum diplomatic and economic power to de-escalate the military campaigns currently operating in Syria and to reinvigorate the UN-led peace process.
When asked about the administration’s posture toward a Syria still headed by Bashar al-Assad, Jeffrey offered six criteria the state of Syria must meet if it is to be reintegrated into the international community and, to paraphrase Rep. McCaul, “be open for business.” According to Jeffrey, a postwar Syria—governed by Assad or otherwise—must do the following: 1) end its support for terrorist groups; 2) end its use of weapons of mass destruction; 3) prevent Iran from establishing a prolonged military presence on sovereign Syrian territory; 4) refrain from threatening its neighbors; 5) hold officials of all ranks accountable for crimes committed during the civil war; and 6) allow the over 12 million refugees and IDPs to return to their homes peacefully and safely. If these conditions are not met, the ambassador said, not only would Assad’s Syria remain a pariah on the international stage, but Washington would mobilize the international community to levy additional economic and diplomatic pressure on Damascus.
Members of the HFAC, and Congress more broadly, agree with the administration’s goals, but there are some very real differences on how to achieve them. While lawmakers agree that reconstruction aid should not benefit areas under Assad’s control and they support more sanctions on the leader and his regime, many on the committee voiced their concern about two specific Trump policies. First, Republicans and Democrats alike—not to mention the Syria Study Group—panned President Trump’s edict-by-tweet to withdraw US troops from Syria. By all reports, the administration has walked that decision back, but the number of US troops in Syria will likely be reduced to some hundreds as opposed to the 2,000 who were stationed there previously. It is important for the merits of the United States military staying in Syria to be debated, but on this issue, a majority of those in Congress is siding against the president.
The Syria Study Group and a number of the HFAC members also took issue with the administration’s policy regarding stabilization assistance in Syria. The United States provides a large amount of humanitarian aid and the Pentagon facilitates a number of programs to help in counterterrorism activities. However, the Trump Administration previously cut stabilization funds for Syria, arguing that it is not Washington’s job alone to provide that kind of support. Ambassador Jeffrey stated plainly that he had no “moral or diplomatic” concerns for ending that support, particularly when regional states like Saudi Arabia agreed to contribute more money.
The problem here—one that Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) explained—is that the Saudis and other deep-pocketed Gulf states are very good at providing cash for “brick and mortar” projects, but that the United States’ stabilization efforts go above and beyond this type of aid. Washington’s funds not only help support local communities to rebuild their livelihoods, Malinowski argued; they are also effective in building resilience in local communities and help promote social cohesion and self-governance. In discounting this strategy, Malinowski and those who share his thinking believe that the United States would be neglecting an opportunity to build strong local actors in Syria and instill them with a sense of their own representative governments. If the long-term goal is a stable and democratic Syria, these efforts are crucial for ensuring that when the day comes when Assad is no longer in power, there are capable Syrians ready to fill the vacuum.
Also Happening This Week in Washington
Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. On May 22, H.R. 31, the 116th Congress’s version of the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) by a vote of 20-2. It amended the bill with a substitution for the Senate’s version of it (S. 52). The bill’s fate was uncertain until 13 committee members voted against the other nine on an amendment that would flatly prohibit the United States from engaging in hostilities with Iran. The bill will now go before the entire Senate for a vote and if—or most likely, when—it passes, the House will have to vote on it again because of the amended language.
Condemning Saudi Arabia’s Continued Detention and Abuse of Women’s Rights Activists. That same day, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) voted to advance out of committee H. Res. 129 condemning Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women’s rights activists. The resolution will go to the House floor under suspended rules.
Encouraging a swift transfer of power in Sudan. Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) S. Res. 188 calling on the military council in Sudan to swiftly transfer power to a civilian-led political authority passed the SFRC and will make its way to the Senate floor for a full vote.
Promoting Security and Energy Partnerships in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) introduced H.R. 2913 in an effort to encourage the states on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea (e.g., Egypt, Turkey, and the countries of the Levant region) to cooperate on issues pertinent to security and energy.
Condemning the Senseless Attacks on Hospitals and Medical Personnel in Syria. The co-chairs of the “Friends of a Free, Stable and Democratic Syria Caucus” introduced H. Res. 395 to condemn the dramatic increase of attacks on medical personnel and hospitals by Syria and Russia.
2) Personnel and Correspondence
Senators Young, Murphy Condemn Houthi Theft of Food in Yemen. On May 23, Senators Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) released a statement condemning Yemen’s Houthi rebels for stealing desperately needed food, an act that threatens to force the World Food Program to suspend its aid deliveries.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Top Foreign Policy Aide Meets with Palestinian Leader. Matt Duss, an outspoken foreign policy advisor for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), reportedly met with senior Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi this week. The two discussed a number of issues including the Trump Administration policies they described as “vindictive” and “hostile.”
Chairman Engel Visits Lebanon. HFAC Chairman Eliot Engel (D-New York) traveled to Lebanon on May 26 to meet with high-ranking Lebanese officials and hear from Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon.
3) Hearings and Briefings
Religious Freedom and Human Rights in Iran. On May 22, the group, International Christian Concern, held its annual policy day on Capitol Hill to discuss religious persecution in Iran. The event was notable because Senator Ted Cruz and administration officials, including Ambassador Sam Brownback, denounced Tehran’s treatment of its religious minorities.
“United for a Better Foreign Policy” Event in Washington. On that same day, two competing groups of veterans held a joint briefing focused on US foreign policy, specifically regarding the 2001 authorization for the use of military force and war powers. Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida), Max Rose (D-New York), and Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) all spoke at the event. Afterward, Gold Star families wrote to members of Congress urging them to reject what the family members described as the Trump Administration’s march to war with Iran.
Women’s Human Rights Defenders in Saudi Arabia. On May 23, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a briefing “on the plight of women’s human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia.” Reps. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) both gave remarks. The panel consisted of Sarah Leah Whitson from Human Rights Watch; Seth Binder from the Project on Middle East Democracy; and Saudi advocates Safa al-Ahmad, Omaima al-Najjar, and Malak al-Shehri. All involved decried Riyadh’s treatment of women’s rights activists and called on the administration to take action to signal to the kingdom that these policies would not be tolerated.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
Jason Greenblatt Addresses the UN Security Council. On May 22, one of President Trump’s key advisors overseeing the so-called peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians, Jason Greenblatt, appeared before the UN Security Council in New York City. As before, he blamed the suffering of Gazans on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but he failed to utter any words regarding Israel’s occupation. He also attacked the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) as “irredeemably flawed” and called on council members essentially to dissolve UNRWA and force governments hosting Palestinian refugees to oversee the crucial work UNRWA now performs. This stems from the administration’s policy position that Palestinian refugees do not legitimately have refugee status and that they need to be integrated into host countries and relinquish their claims.
Trump Bypasses Congress to Sell Arms to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan. The Trump Administration has determined that there is an “emergency” in the Gulf region and therefore it will circumvent Congress and approve 22 weapons sales, totaling over $8 billion, for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. The congressional response was quick, with Democrats and Republicans alike expressing displeasure with the president’s decision.
Greenblatt, Kushner, Hook, Bolton Make Trips to the Region. Administration advisors Jason Greenblatt, Jared Kushner, and Brian Hook are on travel this week visiting Morocco, Jordan, and Israel to speak about the economic portion of their so-called peace plan ahead of June’s investment workshop in Bahrain. Meanwhile, National Security Advisor John Bolton traveled to the UAE to meet with Emirati officials to discuss recent developments and tensions with Iran in the region.
2) Department of State
Secretary Pompeo Speaks at Israeli Embassy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at the Israeli embassy this week about the administration’s “vision of peace” between Palestinians and Israelis, pushing back against anti-Israel bias, and countering Iran.