On September 24, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism held a hearing on “The Path Forward: Key Findings from the Syria Study Group Report.” Congress passed a law in 2018 establishing the study group to assess US policy toward Syria, report its findings, and ultimately issue a report with recommendations on how to approach the conflict in the war-torn country. This hearing gave the co-chairs of the study group the opportunity to preview the final product.
The report is lengthy and successfully assesses the current conditions in Syria. However, the group’s recommendations, more than offering a way forward, simply aim to improve on current US policy toward Syria, one that many in Congress already view as inadequate. Moreover, many of the suggestions depend on having an administration in the White House that is willing to invest in policy improvements and assert consistent leadership. The fact is that the current administration is less interested in finding a solution to the crisis in Syria than withdrawing US troops.
The Syria Study Group “recommends a strategy that makes a negotiated political settlement in Syria more likely yet also allows the United States to defend its interests even if a political solution is not found.” In short, the group’s plan is best summed up by its own description: “this strategy buys time while pressure builds on [President Bashar al-Assad’s] regime, with the aim of compelling governance changes over the long term.” As Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) intimated, this is hardly different from the current administration’s approach; the United States is half engaged and half unengaged, hoping that Assad is weakened and will be compelled to offer concessions in political negotiations.
For his part, Assad has little interest in negotiating at a time when he sees that the consolidation of his power is in reach. However, the report assesses that Assad has not “won” the war, as some opine. His control over areas outside of Damascus is certainly shaky. But the United States has ceded so much leverage and influence to Russia and Iran that Assad feels comfortable playing the same long game that the study group proposes the United States pursue. In the meantime, Assad will continue exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and he will likely weaponize terrorist elements in Syria—like he did before the 2011 uprisings and during the early period of the war—to convince some in the international community that he is Syria’s only partner against extremism. This approach has already enticed some Gulf Arab states to begin the process of normalization.
The report’s recommendations, absent the necessary commitment from an administration that is not heavily invested in resolving the situation in Syria, may also prove inadequate for protecting Syrians not in the northeast, where US-backed partners control territory. This means that the Assad regime, supported by Russia, Iran, and Shia militias, can still terrorize civilians in 60 percent of Syria, and those individuals are beyond Washington’s reach. The result is that while the United States and its partners “buy time,” countless millions will suffer, and the regime and its supporters could carry out more war crimes with impunity.
Ultimately, Congress’s handpicked study group is suggesting that Washington play the long game in Syria. However, countlesss Syrians continue to suffer both in Syria and outside. They do not have the luxury of waiting for the fulfillment of certain political concessions or conditions placed by the United States so that the war would end.
Also Happening This Week in Washington
Iron Dome Reinforcement Act. On September 19, Rep. Ted Budd (R-North Carolina) introduced H.R. 4411—called the Iron Dome Reinforcement Act—to limit US assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Like the Taylor Force Act, this bill requires the secretary of state to certify that the PA is not sending money to individuals or the families of individuals jailed or killed by Israel for undertaking terrorist attacks. This bill differs from the Taylor Force Act, however, because under Budd’s bill, any funds that cannot be sent to the PA would be redirected to support Israel’s Iron Dome.
Limit Authority to Use Watchlists. On September 20, Rep. Justin Amash (I-Michigan) introduced H.R. 4431 to limit the authority of the Department of Homeland Security to bar people from flying due to an individual’s inclusion on a “watchlist.” This bill, should it become law, would benefit American Muslims and Arab Americans (like Amash himself). Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Arab and Muslim Americans have been among the likeliest groups to be surveilled by the government and included on watchlists that would result in being unable to board commercial flights, among other challenges.
2) Hearings and Briefings
Oversight of the Trump Administration’s Muslim Ban. On September 24, the House Foreign Affairs and House Judiciary Committees held a joint hearing to explore the effects of Donald Trump’s Presidential Proclamation barring citizens of seven countries, five of which are majority Muslim, from travel to the United States. Though the president’s order was blocked by the courts twice, the third iteration was adjudicated by the Supreme Court which, by a 5-4 margin, upheld the president’s authority to block these individuals’ entry to the United States.
Lawmakers view the issue differently, depending on which side of the aisle they sit. Democrats pilloried the president’s action as a Muslim ban, noting that he campaigned on the idea and has repeatedly questioned the wisdom and safety of admitting Muslim immigrants. Republicans, however, argue that it is simply a national security action issued without bias. They argue that the travel ban is not a Muslim ban because non-Muslim countries Venezuela and North Korea are included and that the Muslim-majority countries on the list (Iran, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia) only account for eight percent of the global Muslim population.
Predictably, the government officials testifying before the committees defended the president’s order and offered justifications for why this was not a “Muslim ban.” Democrats, however, repeatedly raised the issue of the Presidential Proclamation’s waiver that, in theory, would allow individuals from those sanctioned countries to enter the United States. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) laid out the issue most clearly. In total, only five percent of all waivers submitted are approved, she said, but the majority of these cases are for individuals from North Korea. In addition, applicants from the other non-Muslim country, Venezuela, do not need to go through this waiver process. Jayapal explained that by definition, individuals from Muslim-majority countries are being discriminated against, even within the overarching ban. She noted that waiver approvals for Iranians stand at just over one percent. For Syrians and Libyans, respectively, waiver approvals are approximately five percent and seven percent.
3) Personnel and Correspondence
Sens. Markey, Merkley Inquire About US-Saudi Nuclear Cooperation. On September 18, Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry asking for information about US-Saudi cooperation on nuclear energy. Members of Congress have long been skeptical of the administration’s willingness to support Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions. Now, the two senators are requesting a comprehensive report outlining everything the administration has done to assist the Saudis in this endeavor.
Sen. Ted Cruz Urges President Trump to Initiate Snapback of UN Sanctions. On September 20, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) penned an op-ed for the New York Post calling on the Trump Administration to pursue a “snapback” of United Nations sanctions on Iran. Arab Center Washington DC detailed Cruz’s desire for this snapback of sanctions in a past report.
Destro Confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Democracy. On September 18, the full Senate voted to confirm Robert Destro as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. The vote was close, with 49 voting in favor of his confirmation and 44 opposed. The bureau he will oversee is responsible for promoting human rights like freedoms of speech and religion, as well supporting states’ efforts to secure peace and stability.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
Greenblatt Visits Israel, Pens Op-ed. This week, the Trump Administration’s outgoing special envoy tasked with crafting a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians visited Israel in the wake of the country’s latest elections. Jason Greenblatt flew to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his rival and potential successor Benny Gantz, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and US Ambassador David Friedman. According to one report, Greenblatt’s visit was a kind of fact-finding mission to assess the viability of releasing the long awaited US “peace plan.”
Though Greenblatt once seemed to keep the door open to remaining in the administration after all, he penned an op-ed for CNN later in the week that was considered a “hopeful, bittersweet goodbye.” He wrote about the lessons he learned during his time working on this initiative and gave one final assessment of the current situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
President Trump Discusses Iran, Israel at UNGA. On September 24, at the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), President Trump spoke before the body to recount his successes and further outline his administration’s foreign policy priorities. Despite all of the destabilizing developments in the region since his last appearance at the forum, the president only mentioned the Middle East to warn of Iran’s malign behavior. He spoke briefly about Washington’s commitment to a secure Israel whose presence is normalized in the region, but he focused mostly on his administration’s campaign to weaken Iran.
2) Department of State
Meeting of the Middle East Strategic Alliance. On September 17 and 18, the State Department hosted representatives from the nations that comprise the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA). Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman gathered alongside US officials to discuss the Saudi oil facility attack. In short, the United States and MESA cite this attack as precisely the reason these countries should unite under a common defense initiative.
Secretary Pompeo Visits Saudi Arabia, UAE After Recent Attacks. After a Saudi oil facility was bombed, President Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Arabian Gulf to consult with US partners about how to respond. Pompeo visited Riyadh, where he met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and later Abu Dhabi to speak with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Iran Center Stage on Sidelines of UNGA. Aside from President Trump doubling down on his Iran policy during his UN speech, Secretary Pompeo, Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker, and Brian Hook, the special envoy for Iran, each held meetings and events in New York to focus on Iran. Hook spoke about Iran before the Asia Society, while Pompeo met with officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Jordan to discuss tensions with Tehran, mutual security arrangements, and the crises in Syria and Yemen. Schenker held a press conference to further elaborate on the US approach toward Iran.
Under Secretary of State Hale Meets with Libya’s Sarraj. On September 24, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale met with Libya’s internationally recognized Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The two met on the margins of the UNGA to discuss the ongoing situation in Libya and the United States’ support for the UN-led plan to end the crisis there.
3) Department of the Defense
Defeat-ISIS Director Provides Updates. Chris Maier, the director of the task force to “Defeat-ISIS,” as the so-called Islamic State (IS) is often called, gave a press briefing on September 18 to provide an update on the situation in northeastern Syria. He described a “security mechanism” being established jointly by the US and Turkish militaries to prevent the resurgence of IS elements in that part of the country. Unlike the broader global coalition to defeat IS, this is a bilateral effort between Washington and Ankara only. Moving forward, the sides will conduct joint patrol operations to monitor the area and ensure it remains free of IS fighters.
President Trump Orders Troop Buildup in Saudi Arabia, UAE. President Trump and the Pentagon have decided to deploy hundreds of troops to military bases in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to support those countries’ air and missile defenses. The Defense Department said specifically that the deployment was defensive in nature. Considering the fact that Saudi Arabia proved woefully ill-prepared to protect its vital oil infrastructure, it is evident that the United States is sending reinforcements in order to boost these countries’ defense postures. However, Iran will likely view the deployment as another hostile action by the United States, so tensions are sure to continue to rise.
4) Department of the Treasury
Washington Sanctions Iran’s Central Bank, National Development Fund. In response to the September 14 attack on Saudi Arabia, which the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France say was launched by Iran, the Trump Administration levied sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and the country’s National Development Fund. Though questions remain about how these will actually be applied, as the CBI has been sanctioned for over 20 years, observers are concerned that such measures will further harm ordinary Iranians by making it more difficult—or impossible—for them to purchase crucial humanitarian goods like lifesaving medicines. In addition, this development will likely sound the death knell for the nascent INSTEX trading mechanism the Europeans were hesitantly trying to erect to entice Iran to remain in the 2015 nuclear deal.