Washington Seeks Way Forward in Iraq and Syria

Public officials in Washington, like their counterparts around the world, have been almost singularly focused on providing medical and economic support as the United States continues to navigate the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, the ever-present exigencies of foreign affairs also compel the Trump Administration and the US Congress to deal with serious questions about Washington’s posture toward Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, US military personnel were killed in a raid on an Islamic State (IS) compound as well as in a rocket attack by Kataeb Hezbollah against US, Iraqi, and other coalition forces in Camp Taji. Syria also poses a range of serious challenges. Turkey and the Bashar al-Assad regime, which is backed by Russia and Iran, are observing a fragile ceasefire in Idlib; should the agreement fail to hold, however, continued fighting threatens a US ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and stands to unleash a surge of refugees who will travel at the risk of great harm as they flee to Turkey and then to Europe.

What Next in Syria?

Faced with these recent developments, Trump Administration officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill grappled with the next steps for Washington. The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing on the crisis in Idlib while senators reflected on the nine years of war Bashar al-Assad has waged against the Syrian people. Perhaps as an indication of how seriously Capitol Hill is reconsidering Washington’s Syria policy, the SFRC will hold a closed-door briefing on March 23 to hear from Ambassador James Jeffrey on the current situation in Syria.

The House subcommittee overseeing Middle East policy called on three expert witnesses—Dana Stroul of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hardin Lang of Refugees International, and Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War—to illuminate the nature of the humanitarian crisis confronting the Syrian people of Idlib province. Lang said the situation there is dire and drew attention to the actions the Syrian regime and its Russian backers have taken to hinder the flow of humanitarian aid to the hundreds of thousands in Idlib. He explained that the ability of the international community to utilize cross-border points in Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey is critical for providing the necessary humanitarian relief.

In all, the witnesses painted a bleak picture of the crisis in Idlib. However, they agreed that Turkey’s decision to engage militarily in northeastern Syria provides an opportunity for the United States to reassert itself as a leader in ending the nearly decade-long war. Stroul and Lang proposed that Washington make the effort to reconcile with Turkey. The United States, they argued, could start by expressing diplomatic support for the Turkish-Russian cease-fire and showing tangible support by helping to provide humanitarian aid for both the Syrians residing in the parts of Idlib controlled by Turkish-backed rebel groups as well as for any refugees who cross the border into Turkey.

Cafarella went even further, stating that the United States, under the right conditions, should equip Turkey with the Patriot missile system so the Turks can establish a no-fly zone in northeastern Syria. To that end, Raed al-Saleh of the White Helmets, the volunteer aid organization in Syria, and Omar Alshogre of the Syrian Emergency Task Force both called on the United States to offer military support to Turkey and the rebel groups it supports so they can more forcefully counter the aerial assaults waged by the Assad regime and the Russian military. They and their co-panelist, the Syrian military defector known as “Caesar,” told the senators plainly that the international community’s inability and/or unwillingness to confront Bashar al-Assad and Russia in Syria has given Damascus and Moscow a sense of impunity. Al-Saleh wants Washington to arm Turkey, arguing that what little force Ankara has wielded against Assad’s military has already led to “a complete stop in aerial attacks.”

Many in Washington are skeptical about aiding Turkey, particularly since it still has not sworn off the use of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. Furthermore, Defense Department officials want to be especially cautious, fearing that Turkey might draw the United States further into the Syrian quagmire with no clear policy to extricate itself later. The witnesses at both committee hearings said that the United States has grown numb vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war and has turned its eyes away from the humanitarian disaster that continues to engulf the Syrian people. Lawmakers agreed. The witnesses concluded that Washington now has an opportunity to reengage in Syria and pressure the Assad regime and its Russian supporters to bring the fighting to an end.

Trouble Ahead in Iraq?

In Iraq, the US military was already reconsidering its Iraq posture after US servicemembers were killed in a raid against an IS target. Additional American soldiers were also killed after the Iraqi militia, Kataeb Hezbollah, launched a rocket attack on an Iraqi base that houses personnel from the United States, Iraq, and other nations involved with the coalition to defeat IS. The US response was as swift as it was controversial. The Pentagon attested that the strike targeted Kataeb Hezbollah members, but Iraqi officials decried the retaliatory strike, citing the deaths of multiple civilians and Iraqi security personnel.

Iraq, particularly since the United States assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 at Baghdad airport, has become a less hospitable place for US troops. Iranian-backed and Iranian-aligned militias have carried out multiple rocket attacks; with each new retaliatory strike, the United States alienates Iraqi officials, some of whom have thus far been reluctant to call for the United States’ ouster from Iraq. Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a somewhat contentious call with Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, to chide him about Baghdad’s responsibility to protect the United States. The readout about the call indicated no mention of whether Abdul-Mahdi vented his frustration about continued US attacks on Iraqi entities. Faced with an increasingly irascible Iran and a less patient and more polarized Iraqi political establishment, Washington has looked to reconsider its posture in Iraq.

As such, the Pentagon determined that the United States would leave three of the more remote Iraqi military bases it has used, consolidating personnel among its five remaining bases.  Furthermore, when General Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, attended open and closed hearings and held a press conference this week, he told reporters that although the Pentagon was turning over control of three bases, the military would be moving a Patriot missile defense system into Iraq to better deter and protect against rocket attacks.

Washington’s position in Iraq is precarious at the moment. In his congressional testimony, McKenzie noted that the United States has achieved a level of deterrence against Iran that discourages attributable state-on-state attacks; however, it still has not been able to deter proxy attacks by groups like Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq. McKenzie also noted that due to international sanctions and the location of one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, Iran is likely to lash out through its proxies to exert pressure on the United States. It stands to reason, then, that the Department of Defense will have to reckon with a less hospitable environment in Iraq moving forward.

Despite the hyper focus on combating the spread of the coronavirus, Washington seemed to have spent a week of reflection about its posture toward Syria and Iraq. In both places, the status quo appears untenable and many are pushing the United States to reconsider its policies.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Direct the Removal of US Forces from Hostilities against Iran. This week, the House of Representatives passed S. J. Res. 68, but largely across partisan lines. As has been detailed before in this column, the joint resolution would require the Pentagon to withdraw US troops from any situation that could lead to hostilities in order to prevent further escalation between the United States and Iran in the region. President Trump has already signaled he would veto the legislation and neither chamber appears to have the veto-proof majority to ensure it becomes law.

Supporting the Rights of the People of Iran to Determine Their Future. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) introduced S. Res. 539 this week in a show of support for the people of Iran. The resolution details a long list of human rights violations by the regime in Tehran and it condemns the brutal crackdowns of peaceful protests over the last several months. The resolution will go to the SFRC for consideration.

No US Financing for Iran Act. This week, Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Michigan) introduced H.R. 6243 which is an updated version of his 2016 bill, the No U.S. Financing for Iran Act. If so, Rep. Huizenga’s legislation would prohibit US financial institutions, including the Export-Import Bank, from providing financial services for Iran. Interestingly, Tehran recently asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in loans to combat the coronavirus, so it is important to read the text of Huizenga’s bill when it is released to see if he intends to use US muscle to prevent the IMF from assisting Iran.

77-day Extension of Authorities for Foreign Intelligence and International Terrorism Investigations. On March 16, the Senate opted to pass a 77-day extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that expired on March 15. Though the House passed a version that placated the White House, several senators are extremely skeptical of the reforms—or their lack thereof—in that version; instead, the senators agreed to pass a short extension that allows them to reconsider changes in the law at a later time. For now, the House must pass the Senate’s bill to allow the US government to operate under FISA authorities until the end of March. In the meantime, lawmakers must craft a compromise bill that addresses concerns regarding civil liberties and mass surveillance.

Zero Tolerance for Unlawful Detentions of US Citizens in Lebanon Act. It was reported this week that after recent developments regarding the case of Amer Fakhoury in Lebanon, the Senate will move to vote on a bill introduced earlier this year by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). As detailed before, the legislation seeks to sanction Lebanese officials who have a role in unlawfully detaining US citizens in Lebanon.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats Want to Make Sure Israel Is Not Using US Equipment in Home Demolitions. Israel has long implemented a policy of demolishing Palestinian homes and other structures in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli government usually cites the lack of building permits as an excuse or it demolishes the homes of the families of individuals the Israeli government deems “terrorists”—a practice that many view as a form of collective punishment that is illegal under international law. Some House Democrats are equally concerned about Israel’s policies—and the fact that the United States could be implicated in this practice. Over 60 House Democrats signed onto a letter spearheaded by California Reps. Ro Khanna and Anna Eshoo that asks the administration to pressure Israel to stop the practice of demolishing homes and to ensure that equipment of “U.S.-origin” is not used to further this dangerous practice. According to longstanding US policy, US-provided equipment must be used only for “legitimate self-defense” and lawmakers want to ensure that the law is not violated by Israel’s continued demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian families.

Senate Republicans Call on Saudi Arabia to Rethink Oil Output. Thirteen Senate Republicans wrote to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia this week calling on the kingdom to rethink its decision to boost output and lower the overall price of crude oil. The senators noted that against the backdrop of a once-in-a-generation global pandemic that is already injecting high anxiety in global markets, now is not the time for added uncertainty in global energy markets.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

A Conversation with the US National Security Advisor. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien spoke with a Washington think-tank this week about the Trump Administration’s global defense posture and what it means for US policy in the Arab world. O’Brien started his remarks by listing what he considers US accomplishments: unveiling a “bold Middle East peace plan,” pulling the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, rallying a regional coalition to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, taking decisive action against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, and destroying the so-called Islamic State’s territorial caliphate. O’Brien conceded that based on the administration’s National Security and National Defense strategies, current policies “reflect a change in national security focus from ground-intensive counterinsurgencies in the Middle East and South-Central Asia” to competition with other global powers like Russia and China. He opined that Turkey, a US ally, may be realizing the difficulties associated with working with Moscow in Syria. O’Brien decried the Russian-backed Syrian regime’s continued military actions against Turkish and Turkish-backed forces, but he poured cold water on the idea that Washington would provide hard military assets to help Turkey in Syria.

2) Department of State/US Agency for International Development

USAID Administrator to Resign. This week, Mark Green, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, notified President Donald Trump that he will resign his post effective April 10. Bonnie Glick was set to replace Green as administrator, at least temporarily, but other reports suggest that John Barsa, a former member of the Trump Administration’s transition team, will be elevated to acting administrator.

Trump Administration Releases 2019 Human Rights Report. This week, Secretary of State Pompeo gathered with Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Destro to provide remarks for the unveiling of the department’s 2019 Report on Human Rights Practices. There were two principal takeaways from the secretary’s remarks. First, the administration wields human rights as a political cudgel against its opponents. Despite poor human rights practices in a number of countries across the globe, Pompeo singled out some familiar foes: China, Venezuela, and Iran, among others. The secretary has repeatedly criticized countries and regimes that are in disfavor with the Trump Administration, yet he offers little or no condemnation of the abysmal human rights records of Trump allies like Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt or Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the administration took the debasing and dehumanizing step of stripping Palestinians of East Jerusalem of their title and status, instead referring to them as “Arab residents”—and not Palestinian residents—or “non-Israeli citizens” of the eastern area of the city the Palestinians claim as their future capital. The thorough and nuanced report does chronicle the human rights abuses of close Trump allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, but the fact that Pompeo chose to use its unveiling to criticize geopolitical rivals illustrates that the administration does not truly value human rights as a basic principle.

Trump Administration Announces New Sanctions. This week, the Departments of State and Commerce levied additional sanctions on entities supporting the Iranian regime, Secretary Pompeo said at a press conference. The State Department sanctioned entities for continuing to trade in Iranian petrochemicals while the Department of Commerce sanctioned Iranian scientists for their roles in supporting Tehran’s nuclear energy program. The State Department also sanctioned the new leader of IS as well as the Syrian defense minister. Some in Washington view additional sanctions on Iran as needlessly cruel actions that seriously impede Tehran from effectively combatting the spread of coronavirus in the country. Indeed, the international community has called for Washington to ease sanctions to allow Iran to import the necessary aid to fight the pandemic. Although Pompeo has said that he has repeatedly offered to help Iran, the administration is reportedly opting not to provide any relief for Tehran.

Despite the administration’s refusal thus far to suspend sanctions, prominent members of Congress—particularly progressive lawmakers like Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) as well as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota)—have called on the administration to lift sanctions that jeopardize Tehran’s coronavirus response.

Pompeo Speaks with Tunisian PM; Deputy Secretary Biegun Meets with White Helmets. This week, Secretary of State Pompeo spoke on the phone with Tunisian Prime Minister Elias Fakhfakh after a terrorist attack in Tunis. He called to express his support for the new government head. In addition, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met with Raed al-Saleh, the aforementioned member of Syria’s White Helmets. The two discussed a range of issues pertaining to the continuing humanitarian crisis in Syria, but Biegun did not say how the United States is prepared to assist al-Saleh and his colleagues in the White Helmets organization.

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