Washington Grapples with How to Respond to Turbulent Middle East

In Washington, as the holidays approach, both the legislative and executive branches are aiming to accomplish some year-end housekeeping tasks. Save for the fact that the House of Representatives is likely to impeach President Donald Trump, Congress and the White House have been working to ensure the government remains funded past December 20 and that the Department of Defense is authorized to function in the next fiscal year.

These authorization and appropriation processes have spurred some reflection among officials in Washington. This week, members of Congress and of the Trump Administration have grappled with many aspects of US policy, and significant time and energy was spent reflecting on how the United States should respond to the litany of crises and revolutions underway in the Middle East.

How Many Troops and to What End?

First and foremost, the United States is struggling to put together a coherent strategy for its military presence in the region. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon is considering sending an additional 14,000 troops—effectively doubling the number of military personnel deployed to the region since May 2019—in an effort to deter Iran. Defense Department officials have disputed the figure, but Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon is “evaluating the threat situation, and the secretary, if he chooses to, can make decisions to deploy additional forces based on what he’s observing there.”

Regardless of the number of troops, there are legitimate questions to be asked about the purpose of any further troop deployment. Deterring or “countering Iran” through military means is not a policy authorized by Congress, as some continue to remind the administration. Iran is active overtly in Syria and Iraq and it cooperates to varying degrees with actors in Yemen and Lebanon, so it is difficult to envision how a troop surge would inherently counter Iran in any one of these arenas, never mind all four.

In Syria, where the president has repeatedly tried to wind down the US military presence, an influx of troops would further confuse Washington’s policy. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said at a National Defense Forum that the United States is in Syria strictly to ensure the lasting defeat of the Islamic State (IS) and that the number of troops currently stationed in the country is sufficient to accomplish the task with the help of US partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces. Is ensuring the lasting defeat of IS the sole purpose of maintaining a military presence in Syria? It is a good question since President Trump again asserted this week that the small troop presence is there to control Syria’s oil.

Ending Crises in Syria and Yemen

On the topic of Syria, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, Denise Natali, told an audience this week that one of the United States’ main priorities is to help realize a negotiated end to the conflict. She echoed Secretary Esper’s sentiment about ensuring the defeat of IS and added that Washington is committed to countering Iran. Ultimately, she said, the State Department hopes to find a way forward with a potential peace agreement.

Natali said the same about the ongoing crisis in Yemen, noting that the United States wants a comprehensive peace settlement between all sides. The difficulty that Washington has run up against in Yemen—and to an extent in Iraq as well—is how to deal with armed militias like the Houthi rebels. Until the United States and its partners can successfully integrate these armed militias into negotiations, Natali explained that it will be difficult to reach the aforementioned “comprehensive” settlement.

At least one member of Congress echoed Natali’s overall sentiment. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) told a crowd in Washington this week that in both Syria and Yemen, he believes the United States cannot withdraw from these conflicts but must craft a better and smarter form of engagement—including, in Yemen, with armed militias—to help resolve the crises. In Yemen, specifically, Smith said that there is no piece of legislation Congress could pass to end the war and that the United States must remain involved in order to pressure all sides to negotiate a resolution to the conflict.

How to Respond to Protests in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran

Finally, both lawmakers and Trump Administration officials explored appropriate US responses to the massive popular protests that have roiled Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran in recent weeks. The Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism held a hearing on the Lebanon and Iraq protests, while its counterpart in the House of Representatives held a hearing focusing singularly on Iraq. Both hearings featured Joey Hood, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department.

On Lebanon, members of the subcommittee, on both sides of the aisle, panned the administration’s earlier decision to freeze security assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. It is difficult to craft any one US policy prescription for addressing the systemic problems Lebanon faces, as a panel of experts at Arab Center Washington DC attested, but senators were quite confident that undermining one of Lebanon’s more respected and stable institutions through funding freezes is an unwise approach. On Iraq, members of both subcommittees grilled Hood on the lack of State Department personnel inside Iraq. As they noted, the dearth of diplomatic representation reduces Washington’s ability to aid Iraq in this tumultuous time. Lawmakers were also adamant that the administration needed to explore the use of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions to punish Iraqi officials who committed gross violations of human rights by ordering a violent crackdown on largely peaceful protests.

On the latter issue, the administration appeared to agree. The Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker, held a press conference this week to announce sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act authorities. Three Iraqi nationals who were listed as leaders of Iranian-backed militias, according to the Treasury Department, have been sanctioned for their role in serious human rights abuses. In Iran, State Department officials are also using human rights abuses during recent protests to further the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook held his own press conference to announce that the United States would be sanctioning two Iranian prison facilities for gross abuses of human rights, though the department used authorities separate from the Global Magnitsky Act. It appears that the United States has yet to craft a coherent and productive policy for interacting with protesters in each of these countries. It is noteworthy that these protesters are largely preoccupied with domestic concerns and do not necessarily want US involvement. Nevertheless, the US administration has determined that the use of sanctions could potentially stem the bloody government crackdowns in Iraq and Iran.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict through a Negotiated Two-State Solution. On December 6, the House voted 226-188 to adopt H. Res. 326 that expresses US support for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. After amendments, the resolution also implies Congress’s unwillingness to condition any part of US security assistance to Israel. Nearly the entire Republican caucus—in addition to former GOP member Justin Amash (I-Wisconsin)—voted against the resolution, arguing that it was an attempt by Democrats to make a useless political statement and criticize President Trump’s policies toward Israel.

A group of progressive Democrats, on the other hand, joined with the Republicans in voting against the resolution. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts), and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) all voted “nay,” with Tlaib plainly stating her opposition was based on the fact that she supports a “one-state solution” and considers the “two-state solution” on the verge of being impossible to attain due to Israeli actions on settlements, among other things.

Directing the President to Remove US Armed Forces from Hostilities in Syria. This week the House adopted a rule allowing Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) to initiate a vote to move her War Powers Resolution from the House Foreign Affairs Committee to the floor for full consideration. At any point on December 11, Gabbard can move to discharge her concurrent resolution. However, many in the House, including Democrats, are not excited about Gabbard’s legislation and it is unlikely to garner enough support to pass.

Commemorating the Armenian Genocide through Official Recognition and Remembrance. This week, a GOP senator again blocked passage of S. Res. 150, which commemorates the Armenian genocide undertaken by the Ottoman Empire. The House already passed a version of this resolution, but the White House has reportedly asked Republicans in the Senate to block the measure because mention of the Armenian genocide—and Turkish responsibility for it—angers many in Turkey, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

National Defense Authorization Act. This week, House and Senate conferees reportedly agreed on a compromise version of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bill will still need to be adopted by both chambers, but many are confident that substantive issues were sorted out and that Congress will ultimately pass this into law. Notably, the compromise legislation included a provision known as the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act (background information on the bill is available here). In addition, the compromise NDAA includes provisions that prohibit the in-air refueling of Saudi fighter jets over Yemen and it calls on the US government to release a report detailing who in the Saudi government ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. But it largely left out Democratic Party-supported items like a provision that would have prevented war with Iran and another that sought to withdraw the United States from hostilities in Yemen. For this reason—and the fact that the bill authorizes the Pentagon to spend record amounts of money—some in the Democratic caucus of both chambers are upset with the bill and refuse to vote for it. As one observer stated, the Democrats “got completely rolled” in crafting the NDAA.

Supporting the Rights of the People of Iran to Free Expression. On December 9, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) introduced H. Res. 752 to affirm the House’s support for Iranian protesters. As protests erupt all across Iran, Deutch wants to put the House on record as supporting the people’s rights to protest.

Preventing the Spread of Nuclear Weapons Act. On December 10, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) introduced bills in their respective chambers to allow Congress to weigh in on which countries the United States partners with to develop nuclear power programs. S. 3014 and H.R. 5387 (the bill’s text can be found here) specifically target the US ally, Turkey.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Congress’s Two Muslim Women Subjected to Online Smear Campaign. The Guardian reported this week that Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) have been subjects of what it calls a “vast international operation that exploits far-right pages on Facebook to inflame Islamophobia for profit.” Though there is no indication that the Israeli government was way involved in this effort, The Guardian discovered that much of the Islamophobia and anti-left propaganda was amplified by “mysterious Israel-based accounts” on social media.

Members of the HFAC Meet with Sudanese Prime Minister. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) held a meeting with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok as well as Sudanese ministers for Justice, Religious Affairs & Endowments, and Youth & Sport. The ministers and the committee members talked about Khartoum’s transitional government, its plans for political and social reform, and necessary steps to be taken if the United States removes Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Later, Hamdok also met with Ambassador Nathan Sales to further discuss Khartoum’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Americans Held Captive Abroad. Also on December 5, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) appeared at the Hudson Institute to discuss new legislation he has introduced to punish governments that take US citizens hostage. Much of the discussion revolved around Iran, though the senator did mention that Syria also has detained US citizens without cause. Cotton’s legislation would mandate that sanctions be imposed on government officials and their families who are found to be responsible for holding US citizens captive abroad. Interestingly, Cotton singled out Iran’s supposed unwillingness to negotiate for the freedom and safety of US citizens it has detained as a casus belli for his efforts. He plainly stated that Tehran would never negotiate on US hostages because it views them as too valuable politically. However, just days after the senator’s assertion, the Trump Administration came to terms with Iran to release a US citizen and return him to the United States. Clearly, recent events call into question the need and effectiveness of the senator’s legislation.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Some See Anti-Semitism in Trump’s Address to IAC. This weekend, President Trump attended the Israeli American Council’s national summit and gave an address that some in the Jewish community considered to be anti-Semitic. The president’s comments touched on historical tropes about Jewish wealth and he told the assembled audience that some American Jews “don’t love Israel enough.” Though she was much less controversial and did not garner as much media attention, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) spoke at the event too. Notably, she was booed by some in the room as she defended the Democratic Party’s record on Israel.

Another Trump decision rippled throughout the American Jewish community this week, sparking a fierce debate about whether the president is helping or hurting the community. According to The New York Times, the president signaled that he will issue an executive order effectively “interpret[ing] Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion.” The Jewish Insider published a draft of the executive order that does not explicitly make this claim. Some see this is as a step in combating the very real scourge of anti-Semitism, but others say it will stifle free speech on college campuses and demonize anyone who supports the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

2) Department of State

Pompeo Meets with Netanyahu in Portugal, Travels to Morocco, Hosts Egyptian FM. Over the last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Portugal, visited Morocco, and hosted Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Washington. According to the State Department’s readout, Pompeo and Netanyahu discussed US-Israeli relations and the regional threat of Iran. For his part, Netanyahu, told the press that he raised the issue of Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank with Pompeo. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker disputed the Israeli’s recollection of the meeting.

In Morocco, Secretary Pompeo met with Head of Government Saadedine El Othmani, Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and Director General of National Security Abdellatif Hammouchi. Along with conversations about bilateral trade and finance relations, the US secretary of state and Moroccan officials also spoke about cooperation in counterterrorism and in pushing back against Iranian and Hezbollah influence in Morocco, according to a background briefing by State Department officials.

Lastly, Pompeo and Shoukry met to discuss bilateral relations and the ongoing conflict in Libya. The State Department said that Pompeo raised human rights concerns with Egypt’s foreign minister.

Ambassador Jeffrey Visits Iraq. Ambassador James Jeffrey, who serves as both the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State and the Special Representative for Syria, traveled to Iraq for meetings in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. He met with officials of the central and Kurdish governments to discuss continued cooperation in the fight against IS.

3) Department of Defense

Saudi Trainee Kills Three at Base in Florida. The United States has an agreement with the Saudi government to train members of the Saudi military in the United States by US military personnel. One of these trainees brought a weapon to his base in Pensacola, Florida, on December 6 and killed three and wounded eight others. Afterward, President Trump spoke with Saudi King Salman and shortly thereafter, the Pentagon announced that it was not reviewing its training agreement and that it actually was signing a $15 million contract to provide training at a base in Riyadh. As the investigation into the shooting unfolded, however, the Defense Department announced that a “safety stand-down” order was issued and that the nearly 900 Saudi military trainees in the United States will be confined to classroom training only, until the Pentagon can review its vetting procedures.

4) Department of Justice

UAE Implicated in Scheme to Buy Influence in Washington. This week, the Justice Department unsealed a federal indictment of George Nader, and the United Arab Emirates features heavily in the scheme outlined. According to The New York Times, Nader and a man named Ahmad Khawaja funneled millions of dollars into the coffers of Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s political campaigns in 2016. The goal was to buy influence with the eventual presidential pick and “to gain ‘favor’ and ‘potential financial support’ from an unnamed foreign government,” which was later determined to be the United Arab Emirates. In addition, the report states that the ultimate sponsor of the scheme was Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. These developments paint the UAE, an ostensible US ally, in a negative light while the fervor against foreign interference and meddling in the US political system continues to grow.

5) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Libyan Commander, Iranian Smuggling Network. This week the Treasury Department announced sanctions on a smuggling network in Iran that was procuring weapons. In addition, the department sanctioned the Libyan commander of the al-Saiqa Brigade under the Global Magnitsky Act.

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