The Trump Administration Sees a Path Forward in Syria

President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team was busy this week publicizing US policy toward Syria. Over the course of the last week, Ambassador James Jeffrey, who serves the State Department as both the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State, made multiple public appearances alongside his State and Defense Department colleagues to discuss the future of US policy in Syria.

First on May 7, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Christopher Robinson and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Henry Wooster joined Ambassador Jeffrey at a State Department briefing to highlight Russia’s malign activity in Syria. Then on May 12, Ambassador Jeffrey and Thomas DiNanno, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Policy, Emerging Threats, and Outreach, participated in an online event to discuss holding Bashar al-Assad and his regime accountable for their crimes in Syria. Between the two events, Trump Administration officials diagnosed the current conditions in Syria and offered their thoughts on what the future may hold.

Current Situation in Syria

Ambassador Jeffrey has appeared exceptionally optimistic about the state of affairs in Syria. Warring parties have largely abided by the cease-fire put in place in Idlib in early March and some former residents have returned to Idlib since the cease-fire began. Jeffrey has repeatedly stated over the last few weeks that he believes Russia is now willing to negotiate and compromise with the international community on finding a solution in Syria. He told his virtual audience quite plainly that “the Russians are not happy with Assad” and that he hopes this strife between the two will allow Russia to more seriously consider a potential end to the war.

Beyond possible Russian-Syrian friction, Jeffrey and his colleagues also pointed out at the State Department briefing that there currently exists a major rift within the support structure around Bashar al-Assad. His cousin and fellow Alawi power broker, Rami Makhlouf, recently released public criticism of the regime, sparking furious speculation about the fate of Assad’s hold on power. Ambassador Jeffrey cautioned that he did not view the infighting between the two regime figures as indicative of an imminent fall of the regime, but he said it does clearly signal that the regime is in distress.

The Assad-Makhlouf row may not necessarily signal the all-too-illusive fragmentation that usually precedes the fall of a regime, but it is no doubt a disconcerting development for those who hope to see Assad remain in power. In addition to a potential cooling of relations between Russia and Syria and the general tumult a regime faces after nearly a decade of war, Ambassador Jeffrey believes that sustained UN pressure on Assad and his backers in Russia has frustrated both states. Syria clearly bears the brunt of the bad publicity and financial hardship that come with committing atrocities against its own people. But the pressure on Russia grew notably when the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) issued its report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The findings, detailed in Arab Center Washington DC’s April 15 report, conclude that the Assad regime was responsible for three different chemical weapons attacks in March 2017. As Deputy Assistant Secretary DiNanno pointed out, the fact that the OPCW, an independent international entity not under the control of the United States or its allies, accused Assad of carrying out the illegal attacks is more credible and damaging than when it was only the United States and its allies criticizing the regime. Assad has also been the subject of pointed criticism from the UN Secretary-General in recent weeks for obstructing the delivery of UN assistance to internally displaced persons in Syria. DiNanno summed up the idea behind this public pressure campaign by arguing that sovereign nations do not like experiencing pressure in multilateral institutions and now that the OPCW’s IIT report openly details the Damascus regime’s actions, both Assad and his backers in Moscow are struggling to deflect responsibility for their crimes.

At present, these officials assess that Bashar al-Assad is facing debilitating international pressure and that, finally, the Russians appear to have grown fatigued by having to defend and answer for a ruler who, as Ambassador Jeffrey stated, “won’t bend” to any amount of pressure or compromise with his opponents.

Future of US Policy in Syria

Both Deputy Assistant Secretary DiNanno and Ambassador Jeffrey detailed the US position moving forward in Syria. At both of his briefings, Jeffrey distilled US policy toward Syria to two goals: finding a political solution to the conflict as set forth in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and maintaining pressure on the Assad regime in an effort to ensure accountability for its actions. To do this, Jeffrey suggested that Washington should view this time as an opportunity to further drive a wedge between the regimes in Damascus and Moscow and, to do so, the United States must present a holistic way forward that requires Russia to distance itself, to varying degrees, from Syria and its other backer, Iran. As of now, Jeffrey is confident that the pressure the world is exerting on Russia to cease its support of Bashar al-Assad is working, saying that the international community must maintain that pressure until there is daylight between the two parties.

For his part, DiNanno told his audience that the United States must remain engaged publicly and diplomatically in exposing the use of chemical weapons and, ultimately, ensuring that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are dismantled. He said it is critical to the United States to interrupt the weapons supply chain and eliminate Damascus’s chemical weapons program entirely. Jeffrey added that the impetus for such a measure comes as the Assad regime continues to facilitate the flow of weapons to groups like Hezbollah and there is no guarantee that Assad would shut this supply chain regarding chemical weapons as well.

While the administration appears to have identified a workable path forward in Syria, some on Capitol Hill are not as confident. The same week that Ambassador Jeffrey and his colleagues were crafting this policy, a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to do even more.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Directing the Removal of US Forces from Hostilities against Iran. On May 6, President Trump vetoed S. J. Res. 68, legislation that mandated all US forces to cease any engagement in hostilities with Iran. The joint resolution passed the Senate by a vote of 55-45 in February and then passed the House on a party-line vote weeks later. Because the joint resolution originated in the Senate, it returned to the upper chamber for a veto-override vote that fell well short of the two-thirds majority required to overcome the president’s veto. Nevertheless, Democrats and some Republicans maintain that the passage of the joint resolution through both chambers signals Congress’s firm opposition to armed conflict with Iran.

A Bill to Assist COVID-19 Recovery Efforts in Sudan. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced S. 3668 this week, providing US assistance to Sudan for its fight against COVID-19. This is the latest in a line of moves intended to resuscitate US-Sudanese relations since the new government was installed in Khartoum.

COVID-19 International Response and Recovery Act. Senator Menendez also spearheaded another piece of legislation that calls for wide-ranging reforms to the way the United States engages with the rest of the international community to stop the spread of COVID-19. The COVID-19 International Response and Recovery Act (CIRRA) is broad and includes funding for a number of initiatives, including provisions that support refugees and migrants; help civil society organizations protect human rights around the world; improve media reporting about COVID-19 in world regions, including in the Middle East through the Middle East Broadcasting Networks; and authorize the United States to provide direct or indirect aid to the occupied Palestinian territories and Sudan.

Expressing Support for Assisting East African Countries Afflicted by the Plague of Desert Locusts. As though a global health pandemic and accompanying economic recession were not distressing enough, several countries in East Africa, including Arab League states Somalia and Sudan, are also facing an infestation of desert locusts that will further strain already limited food supplies. As such, Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) introduced H. Res. 962, calling on the United States and its international partners to provide assistance to the region to eradicate the pests and eliminate the threat to local food sources.

PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Reauthorization. In March 2020, Arab Center Washington DC detailed how the two chambers of Congress were having difficulty agreeing to reauthorize provisions of US law that address the government’s surveillance powers. As it stands, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is looking to use the House’s USA FREEDOM Reauthorization Act to usher in a massive expansion of the executive branch’s authority to undertake electronic surveillance. It is still unclear whether McConnell and his team have the votes to adopt his amendment or if the Democratic-controlled House will follow the Senate’s lead. The act is significant because of its potential consequences for minorities in the United States, including Arab and Muslim Americans. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the PATRIOT Act accorded the executive branch expansive surveillance powers that almost immediately hurt the civil liberties of Arab Americans; now, McConnell’s bill would expand surveillance power to include Americans’ web browsing activity which, as the past has shown, could easily be manipulated to target vulnerable communities like those of Arab and Muslim Americans.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate Democrats Write to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights about COVID Crackdowns. Countries around the world have taken actions that, despite their aggressive appearance, have proven to be valuable tools for keeping the public safe and healthy during this pandemic. However, some states are capitalizing on the need for social distancing to crack down on opposition figures or government critics. Ten Senate Democrats wrote a letter to the UN High Commission for Human Rights to understand what effect the pandemic has had on her team’s ability to do its critical work. In the CIRRA legislation described above, funds are allocated to international human rights organizations to help address some of these concerns.

Senate Democrats Reportedly Water Down Letter Warning against Annexation. The publication, Jewish Insider, obtained a copy of an amended letter that Senate Democrats originally wrote warning Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz against annexing parts of the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley. The previous letter stated plainly that Israeli annexation would harm US-Israeli relations and would mark an end to decades of “bipartisan support” for Israel in Washington. Now, however, there are several edits to the letter’s language that soften the bluntness of the message.

House Republicans Call on Jordan to Extradite Terrorism Suspect. Seven House Republicans penned a letter to the Jordanian ambassador to the United States requesting that Amman extradite a woman named Ahlam Al-Tamimi who has been indicted on US federal terrorism charges. This is at least the second time that lawmakers have called for Tamimi’s extradition in roughly one year, as the chairman and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee wrote to US Attorney General Bill Barr on the matter in September 2019.

Senator Kaine Discusses War Powers and Israeli Annexation of the West Bank. On May 12, Senator Tim Kaine participated in a webinar to discuss COVID-19 responses, from a congressional perspective. While much of the conversation was centered on that topic, the senator did field some questions about recent developments regarding congressional war powers and Israel’s looming annexation plans. Kaine was the leading sponsor of the aforementioned S. J. Res. 68 (mandating that US forces cease engagement in hostilities with Iran) and, despite the Senate’s failed veto-override vote, he remained positive about the anti-war initiative. Moving forward, Kaine said he wants to include war powers provisions in the upcoming fiscal year’s (2021) National Defense Authorization Act, which is considered “must pass” legislation in Washington.

Kaine also spoke about how Israel’s annexation would undermine decades of stated US policy and would eventually lead to questions regarding US financial support for Israel. He quickly clarified that the United States would always support Israel against threats from “Iran or other countries in the region” but he maintained that any unilateral Israeli annexation would eventually call into question the historically unbridled US financial support to Israel.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Speaks with Saudi King after US Withdraws Patriot Missiles. The United States decided to remove two Patriot missile defense battery systems and some fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia as the US military reassesses its presence in the kingdom, amid tensions between the two countries. In an effort to push back against claims that the administration has grown weary of the kingdom’s policies, President Trump spoke with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman over the weekend to reaffirm the bilateral defense partnership.

President Trump, Secretary Pompeo Congratulate Iraq’s PM on New Government. This week both President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to congratulate him on his successful formation of a new government. After Iraq’s Council of Representatives approved Kadhimi’s government, Washington issued a notice that Iraq would receive a 120-day waiver that allows it to import energy from Iran, saying this would afford the new government some stability as it tries to navigate its first few months in power.

2) Department of State

US Announces Assistance to Yemen. On May 6, the US Agency for International Development announced that Secretary Pompeo had authorized over $225 million in aid to Yemen. Most of the funds will support UN World Food Programme activities in southern Yemen, while a lesser amount will be used to provide food aid to the Houthi-controlled northern part of the country (where 70 percent of Yemenis live). About $780,000 will be provided for the country’s COVID-19 response efforts. These are crucial steps, but they may not be enough to overcome the problems that arose when the Trump Administration canceled aid to Yemen earlier this year.

US Ambassador to Israel Discusses Annexation in New Interview. This week, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman gave an interview with an Israeli news outlet in which he again reiterated the spurious claim that annexation of occupied territory—which the international community agrees belongs to a potential Palestinian state—is solely the decision of Israel. As questions regarding annexation continue to arise, the State Department announced that Secretary Pompeo would be traveling to Israel, ostensibly to discuss COVID-19 and Iran. However, in a separate interview with Israel Hayom, Pompeo said he was traveling to Israel specifically to coordinate on the question of annexation and the status of the president’s so-called “peace plan.”

Iran-US Prisoner Swap? Washington is abuzz with rumors that the United States and Iran are working to ease tensions and possibly secure a prisoner exchange. Whatever the status of any backroom negotiations, however, public interactions between the sides remain icy. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, got into a very public Twitter spat about the subject this week, mocking the idea of a prisoner swap.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper Wants US to Exit Sinai Peacekeeping Mission. This week it was reported that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is proposing to remove US troops that help enforce a UN peacekeeping mission in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. According to the report, Esper’s proposal is based on budgetary concerns; he said stationing 400 US troops in the restive Sinai is not the most effective use of limited Pentagon resources. Israel and the US State Department oppose such a move, though there are mixed feelings in Cairo about the US presence there. It is unclear if the White House will implement Esper’s suggestion. Despite many questions regarding the Sinai, the State Department signed off on a potential sale of Apache helicopters to Egypt, in part for its military operations in the peninsula.

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