Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Hearings and Briefings

Will Congress’s Caesar Bill Put an End to Assad’s Tyranny and the Violence in Syria? On August 26, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), participated in a virtual briefing on the effects of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. Engel spoke at length about the history and purpose of the Caesar legislation before offering his thoughts on the effects of the administration’s implementation of the law. The chairman said that Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its collaborators are the main targets of the legislation, and that Congress’s intent in shepherding it into law was to give the Trump Administration the ability to put pressure on Damascus to end its violence against the Syrian people. While Engel stressed that regime leaders and other perpetrators of violence in Syria must be held accountable, it was his belief that right now, the United States must simply keep pressure on Assad to end the fighting.

While Engel echoed statements issued by the current administration that the law is not intended to harm Syrian civilians, he also said that the administration must be careful in its implementation in order to avoid hurting ordinary Syrians. It should also try to spare those living in the somewhat autonomous governing region of the northeast, where Kurds and other local actors may have limited cooperation with the regime in Damascus. Lastly, Engel argued that the Caesar legislation is a forceful tool for maintaining pressure on the Assad regime, but he warned that Damascus’s primary patrons—Russia and Iran, as well as China, to a lesser extent—could blunt the blow of US sanctions. He said that if these states do bail out the Syrian regime, then Washington should ensure that they “pay the same price as regime purveyors of violence.”

Biden-Harris Will Not “Tie Security Assistance to Political Decisions Israel Makes. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), the recently nominated vice presidential nominee, told campaign supporters this week that if the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is elected, he would not tie US security assistance to Israel to political decisions the country makes. This is in response to growing calls in the United States to condition US assistance on Israel’s policy regarding the occupied West Bank. Many in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party have called for prohibiting any US assistance from being used to abet Israeli annexation of the West Bank or the Jordan Valley. A group of House lawmakers recently proposed legislation to legally bar the United States from recognizing or providing aid to support that potential annexation.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump, Ambassador Jeffrey in Contact with Turkish Officials. Over the last week, President Trump and a top State Department official each spoke or met with high-ranking Turkish officials. President Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke on the phone amid heightening tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Trump Administration official tasked with overseeing US Syria and anti-Islamic State (IS) policy, visited Istanbul after traveling to Geneva to observe the Syria Constitutional Committee meeting. According to Turkish media, Jeffrey met with officials from President Erdogan’s office, as well as from the defense and foreign affairs ministries, to discuss the ongoing situation in Syria. Jeffrey’s visit to Istanbul came just days after the State Department criticized President Erdogan for hosting a delegation of Hamas officials.

White House Officials Escort Israeli Delegation to UAE. Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien visited Jerusalem this week to meet with Israeli officials and escort a delegation to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in what the sides described as the “first commercial flight” between the two states since their newly announced normalization agreement. In their speeches, Kushner and O’Brien lauded the agreement and tried to temper Israeli concerns about a proposed sale of US fighter jets to Abu Dhabi. While in the region, the US delegation also traveled to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to push for those countries to normalize relations with Israel.

2) Department of State

Assistant Secretary Schenker Follows Pompeo’s Tour of the Region. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo completed a multistate tour of the Middle East, ending his trip by meeting with leaders of Oman and the UAE. His trip to Oman, along with an earlier visit to Bahrain, proved fruitless, however, in securing a commitment by these Gulf Arab states to join the UAE in establishing ties with Israel.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker then departed to two other Gulf states to try his hand at encouraging further normalization with Israel. First, Schenker flew to Kuwait—a state rumored to be the subject of US pressure to normalize relations with Israel—to hold meetings with Kuwaiti officials. Afterward, the assistant secretary traveled to Qatar for meetings with officials in Doha, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. According to his itinerary, Schenker will round out his travels with a trip to Lebanon.

Washington Vetoes One UN Resolution after Threatening to Sink Another. The United States vetoed a proposed UN resolution this week, though not for the reason originally proposed. In previous weeks, the US delegation to the United Nations considered vetoing a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution regarding the UN peacekeeping mission tasked with maintaining calm between Israel and Lebanon. However, after the resolution was amended to alleviate US concerns, the resolution passed. Later in the week Washington did wield its veto power, however, on a different resolution, this one intended to address individuals involved in terrorism-related activities. US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft told her colleagues at Turtle Bay that the resolution was a “farce” because it did not call for IS fighters to be repatriated to their home countries to face charges for their crimes.

Sanctions Snapback Bid in Limbo after UNSC Rebukes US Effort. Ambassador Craft faced another predicament before the UNSC after the body’s president said the US effort to force a snapback of UN sanctions on Iran is not permissible. Most UNSC members reject Washington’s effort and now there are lingering questions about how to adjudicate the matter. They believe that the legal justifications for the United States’ move are questionable and, according to many experts, that Washington’s effort to snapback sanctions unilaterally has left it isolated in the international community. Washington wants broad UN sanctions—including a ban on selling conventional weapons to Tehran—to be reimposed in the next 30 days and before the latter prohibition expires in October.

Secretary Pompeo, Moroccan FM Bourita Laud Bilateral Cooperation. Secretary Pompeo and his Moroccan counterpart, Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, held a virtual meeting this week to discuss US-Morocco cooperation and to usher in a new “Enhanced Immunities Agreement” between the two sides. That agreement, as described by the two officials, extends diplomatic privileges and protections to employees of the two governments’ respective consulates, bringing those immunities in line with those already enjoyed by embassy staff.

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