Congressional Update – Week Ending March 16, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Res. 644. On March 15, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a full committee markup on four pieces of legislation, three of which were related to the Middle East and North Africa. The first was H. Res. 644, which expressed the House’s condemnation of the reported slave auctions in Libya. Among other things, the resolution calls on the United Nations and the US secretary of state to investigate the incidents and take appropriate measures to identify the perpetrators and punish those responsible. Additionally, the members called on the secretary of state to certify that US funds or programs are addressing the concerns raised in the resolution. This and the following pieces of legislation all passed the committee, as amended.

H.R. 4681. This bill—named the No Assistance for Assad Act—puts a moratorium on the use of any US funds to support or reconstruct areas of Syria under the control of President Bashar al-Assad for fiscal years 2019-2023. The bill spells out the specific types of prohibited aid that would support, directly or indirectly, a return to normalcy for government-controlled areas. The prohibition includes assistance intended to help internally displaced persons (IDPs) transition from depending on aid to self-sufficiency; begin reconstruction of destroyed towns and cities; or stabilize areas that have recently seen an end to the fighting. The bill does stipulate, however, that if the Assad government takes certain specified steps, then, with the president’s certification, US funds would be released to areas under Assad’s control. Otherwise, the only possible way the United States might assist those looking to rebuild in government-held territory is if the projects are carried out by local governments or civil society groups. In seemingly contradictory language, the bill also says that all aid that provides for refugees and IDPs, allows for the delivery of goods and services, and supports humanitarian efforts should not be affected.

H.R. 4744. The Iran Human Rights and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act was introduced shortly after the recent protests that swept through the Islamic Republic. The bill outlines lawmakers’ concerns about Iran’s human rights abuses, the taking of political prisoners and imprisonment of dual citizens, and the persecution of religious minorities, and it expresses the sense of Congress that members support the “people of Iran who seek the opportunity to freely elect a government of their choosing.” Ultimately, the bill allows for new sanctions to be placed on individuals if they are deemed to have carried out human rights abuses or engaged in censorship, corruption, or hostage-taking.

Joint Resolutions on Yemen. The previous March 2 and March 9 Congressional Updates described two joint resolutions that senators are using to force a vote on the United States’ role in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. This week, staffers on Capitol Hill anticipated a full vote on the resolution sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), and Mike Lee (R-Utah). This version is the more aggressive of the two, ordering that all US Armed Forces be removed from Yemen unless they are carrying out operations against terrorist organizations. Senior officials in the Trump Administration are urging senators to vote against the resolution, but even if it fails, a strong showing of support for the resolution would send a forceful message to the Saudis as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be visiting the United States beginning March 19. The vote for this resolution is due next week.

The other resolution, however, may garner more support because it is less specific. Instead of withdrawing US forces, the resolution sponsored by Senators Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) would require the administration to certify that the Saudis are making efforts to limit civilian bombings and other tactics that are generally considered to be contributing to the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. If the certification cannot be made, then money cannot be used to assist the Saudi-led campaign. The resolution is considered softer and it might be more enticing for those senators who want to make a point but do not want to be perceived as going against the White House.

2) Hearings

United States Central Command and United States Africa Command. On March 13, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to review the requested National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019 and assess security developments in both units’ jurisdictions. Generals Joseph Votel of Central Command (CENTCOM) and Thomas Waldhauser of Africa Command (AFRICOM) offered testimony. Waldhauser reiterated many of the same points that he raised last week before the House Armed Services Committee. Most notably, he repeated that AFRICOM’s major security concerns stem from the unrest and poor governance in Somalia and Libya as well as the effects that radiate from the internal chaos and affect their neighbors.

General Votel touched on a range of issues, but his remarks about Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia were most noteworthy. For Iran, he gave an unwavering recommendation that the United States remain in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aligning himself with other top military brass like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford. While he acknowledged that the Iran nuclear deal is imperfect, he justified his position by noting just how difficult it would be to address Iran’s other problematic behavior in addition to having to craft a strategy to limit its nuclear weapons capabilities. As for Iran’s ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, Votel said plainly that, in his opinion, Assad is the winner of the Syrian conflict and that he has reaped the benefits of assistance from Iran and Russia. Votel also noted that, at this point, the only objective for the US military in Syria is the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS), and not pushing back on the Assad regime or Iran.

Lastly, Votel gave remarks on Saudi Arabia that surprised the committee members. When asked about the US military’s role in assisting Saudi Arabia in its campaign against Yemen, Votel stated that the United States does not know what missions it is assisting or what targets it helps Saudi Arabia strike. Pushed further, the general told lawmakers that, to his knowledge, US forces have no way of knowing if US-refueled Saudi aircraft or US munitions were used in specific attacks. This testimony will undoubtedly be used to buttress certain arguments in the upcoming fight over the United States’ role in the Yemen war.

Somalia’s Current Security and Stability Status. On March 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy heard testimonies from four experts on Somali affairs to understand what, if any, progress the federal government in Somalia has made in stabilizing the country and the nature of the country’s current challenges. Abdirashid Hashi, a native of Somalia and executive director of the Heritage Institute in Mogadishu, was on the panel with Dr. Tricia Bacon of American University, Dr. EJ Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group, and Mark Yarnell of Refugees International.

The four witnesses explained that the main security concerns facing Somalia are the ongoing conflict with and insurgency by the al-Shabab terrorist group; the persistent threat of famine as the country faces its fifth consecutive year of poor farming weather; and consistently poor governance and pervasive corruption among the politicians in the Somali federal government. In addressing the threat from al-Shabab, the witnesses unanimously agreed that there is no military solution to the problem and that US airstrikes have limited effectiveness. Instead, Bacon said that the federal government is so deadlocked with—if not inferior to—al-Shabab that the sides might ultimately have to consider negotiating a peace settlement with the more pragmatic elements of the group. As for the famine, Yarnell urged lawmakers to fund aid programs at least to last fiscal year’s levels, if not more, to stave off another deadly famine.

The panel had a range of suggestions regarding governance and corruption problems. Hogendoorn recommended that the US government shift its resources to identifying, recruiting, training, and incentivizing local groups and actors to build a capable security coalition in order to effect sustainable long-term stability. The corruption and poor governance prevalent among the political class hurt the prospects of security, too, by weakening the central government to the point that it cannot provide basic services like maintaining order. Hashi illustrated the instability of the political system by saying that during his brief visit in Washington, members of the Somali parliament had tried to unseat the prime minister and his cabinet as well as the speaker of parliament. While no witness had a definitive list of recommendations to combat the pervasive problems of governance, all of them identified one dynamic that they said undoubtedly hampers any possibility of reform: the relationship between the federal government and the states has been consistently undermined by the rivalry between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The Qataris support the central government while the Emiratis support the federal member states, turning the domestic politics of Somalia into a kind of zero-sum game. The ongoing GCC crisis has only exacerbated the problems, the panelists agreed.

3) Correspondence

Kaine and Colleagues Write to Cabinet Members in Support of Syrians. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen asking why they opted not to renew the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) of Syrians residing in the United States since August 1, 2016. Per the decision of the Departments of State and Homeland Security earlier this year to re-designate only individuals who arrived before August of 2016, any Syrian who entered the United States after that date is not deemed to have protected status and can be removed from the country and denied the opportunity to find employment. The senator and his four Democratic colleagues argue that extending the TPS for the nearly 6,900 Syrians who entered before the cutoff date indicates that Syria is obviously too dangerous to return to, yet the White House is failing to offer the relative newcomers to the United States the same opportunity to remain in safety.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Confers on Gaza…Without Palestinians. On March 13, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Jason Greenblatt sat down with officials from Israel and several Arab countries. The Palestinian Authority boycotted the meeting because it objected to President Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and accused the administration of abandoning work toward a political solution by focusing only on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which was the declared purpose of the conference. Indeed, Greenblatt and his cohorts emphasized that the situation in Gaza is solely one of humanitarian concern; Greenblatt also laid the blame for the situation at the feet of the Palestinians. While there is little doubt that the people of Gaza face a dismal situation, the officials’ focus on treating the Gaza crisis as one to be resolved via humanitarian considerations ignores the critical underlying factors of border closures by Israel and Egypt and Israel’s air, land, and sea blockade of the Strip.

H.R. McMaster Talks Syria at Holocaust Museum. On March 15, White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster ventured away from Pennsylvania Avenue to give the administration’s perspective on the ongoing crisis in Syria. McMaster’s keynote address at the US Holocaust Museum’s discussion (titled “Syria: Is the Worst Yet to Come?”) focused on how the United States is taking action to hold the Syrian government accountable for its actions. The first tactic, according to the general, is documenting the atrocities carried out by the Assad regime and IS, particularly through US support for the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM)—a group created by the United Nations to collect and analyze evidence of international humanitarian law and human rights violations in Syria and to prepare criminal proceedings. Second, he said the administration is holding the Syrian government accountable by fighting alongside partners to defeat terrorist organizations. Here, McMaster underscored Congress’s point that in areas controlled by the Assad regime, aid would not be provided unless some form of political agreement was reached. Third, he said the administration is going to hold the Assad regime accountable for using chemical weapons. McMaster noted that all efforts by the United States are being undermined by Iranian and Russian support of Assad and, to that end, he urged the international community to increase sanctions on Moscow and Tehran.

2) Cabinet

Haley Warns US Could Use Force in Syria if It “Must.” On March 12 at a UN Security Council meeting, US Ambassador Nikki Haley told her colleagues that the United States is prepared to act militarily to stop Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons if the international community does not do so. The rhetoric from the Trump Administration makes it appear as though the president is considering targeted strikes on the Assad regime, much like what he ordered just under a year ago. In addition to Haley’s explicit warning, Defense Secretary Mattis cautioned Syria and its foreign backers that using weaponized gas would be a poor decision, ostensibly suggesting that the military could take action.

Secretary Mattis Visits the Gulf. This week, Secretary Mattis took visited two US allies in the Gulf. First, he flew to Oman where he met with senior officials and the sultan in Muscat. The two sides primarily discussed bilateral defense cooperation, but the officials also spoke at length about the situation in Yemen and how best to manage it. Afterward, Mattis flew to Manama where he met with Bahraini defense officials and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Like in Oman, the officials in Bahrain spoke at length about their close ties and ongoing defense cooperation. There was no mention of Yemen, however, likely because Bahrain is entrenched in the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm. Oman, on the other hand, may be a much more suitable candidate to play a constructive mediating role in ending the war on Yemen, as illustrated by the current talks being hosted there between Houthi and Saudi officials.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Fired, CIA Director Pompeo Nominated as Replacement. President Trump’s embattled secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, saw his tenure as chief diplomat come to an end this week. In an early morning tweet, shortly after Tillerson arrived back in the United States from a trip to Africa, Trump announced the secretary was out and that he was nominating current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo, as his replacement. Tillerson is considered by some as one of the least consequential secretaries of state of the United States, but to many observers, he was the last semblance of moderation in a Trump Administration—one that consists of ideologues, isolationists, and neoconservatives. Pompeo faces a tough confirmation battle, as does Trump’s choice to replace Pompeo, long time CIA operative Gina Haspel. Haspel oversaw the agency’s highly controversial “enhanced interrogation” program in a secret black site prison in Thailand in the early 2000s. This, coupled with her involvement in what is considered a CIA cover-up attempt, will surely make for a grueling nomination hearing before the Senate.

3) Other Administration Officials

Top DNI Official Talks National Security. On March 13, David Cattler, the manager for the Near East in the office of the Director of National Security (DNI), spoke at a Washington think tank to outline the leading security, political, and humanitarian concerns his agency has identified in the Middle East and North Africa. Cattler chronicled the significant decline of the Islamic State in recent years and outlined the second- and third-order effects of the fall of IS. First and foremost, he emphasized the ability of the Islamic State to evolve and adjust over time—evidenced by the success of their online propaganda. While in the beginning IS focused on a message of governance, adventure, and victory, Cattler pointed out that the narrative has since shifted to one of revenge and indiscriminate killing.

Cattler moved on to discuss how Iran has been able to spread its ideology across the region, utilizing Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shia militants in Iraq to consolidate its gains and establish a “Shia crescent.” He argued that this could, in turn, threaten a range of US national security interests.

As for the humanitarian crises across the region, Cattler particularly spoke about the war and food crisis in Yemen and the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. Not only do these conflicts create distress within Yemen and Syria, he stated, but they also create economic, political, and social strife for the countries that are taking in refugees. He ended with noting some of the other events in the region such as the ongoing rift in the GCC between the Saudi-led bloc and Qatar, Egypt’s upcoming elections and campaign against IS in the Sinai, and the prospects for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis and a solution to the crisis in Gaza.

Ambassador David Satterfield Goes to Rome in Support of Lebanon. On March 15, Acting Deputy Secretary for the Bureau of Near East Affairs David Satterfield traveled to Italy to participate in the Rome II Conference in support of the Lebanese Armed Forces and Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces. In attendance were 41 countries, and major western backers like the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and France pledged millions in security aid to bolster Lebanon’s capabilities. The United States pledged $30 million worth of military equipment—subject to congressional approval—consisting of transportation helicopters, and another $9 million in training.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here