Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. On January 22, the full House of Representatives voted, under suspended rules, to adopt H.R. 31, the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. This bill was passed by the House last year and is technically under consideration in the Senate at present as part of the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act (S. 1). Should H.R. 31 become law, it would “impose new sanctions on human rights abuses, encourage negotiations, and authorize the State Department to support entities that are collecting and preserving the chain of evidence for eventual prosecution of those committing war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria,” according to the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The aforementioned sanctions are intended to strain the Bashar al-Assad government by stripping it of allies. Any person determined to be helping the Assad regime with reconstruction or engineering projects, financing the Assad government, or supporting the Syrian energy sector will be subject to US sanctions unless exempted by the president. Should S. 1 fail to pass the Senate, there is a strong chance the Senate would take up the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act as a stand-alone bill; indeed, it was previously introduced by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch (R-Idaho), as S. 52.

Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act. An October 2018 law has resurfaced as a topic of discussion in the first weeks of 2019 as it is poised to take full effect at the beginning of February. The Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, as its name suggests, amended the previous Anti-Terrorism Act, which was passed into law to allow US citizens civil recourse should they or their families fall victim to terrorist acts. The Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act was ushered through Congress chiefly in response to the results of cases that some US citizens had brought against the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization but lost due to what the courts said was a lack of jurisdiction. The Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act amends the Anti-Terrorism Act in three ways: it excludes certain designated terrorist groups from an exemption clause in the civil-liability provision; it expands the list of assets to which plaintiffs may have access if they are to win a settlement under the law; and it tries to give federal courts the “personal jurisdiction” that they said they lacked in civil cases by requiring foreign entities to consent to such jurisdiction as a condition for receiving US economic aid.

The last portion is most relevant as February approaches and the law takes full effect (after the statutory 120-day waiting period). The amended law now says that foreign entities consent to personal jurisdiction in civil actions in the United States if—after February 1, 2019—they accept US funding authorized by one of three legal provisions in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961: economic support funds (ESF) and international narcotics control and law enforcement (INCLE), which are the most relevant in this case; and nonproliferation and export control assistance (NECA).

The United States has historically given a great deal of its economic aid to Middle East partners through the ESF and INCLE authorities. This includes security aid and budget support to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. The PA, already having come close to losing in a civil court case that claimed it facilitated a terrorist attack, has issued a statement saying it would not accept US aid from ESF or INCLE accounts. The Trump Administration had already cut the bulk of ESF to the PA, but INCLE funds help maintain Palestinian security services in the West Bank, something that Israel and the United States both support. Now, however, the PA has calculated that the tens of millions it receives in funding are not worth opening itself up to potentially being liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in civil liabilities. Other Arab governments may also have to reconsider accepting certain kinds of funds from the United States if it means exposing their countries to the possibility of costly civil suits.

Israel, as mentioned before, is not enthusiastic about the prospects of Palestinian security services losing roughly $60 million. In fact, the Times of Israel reported this week that Israel has lobbied Congress to amend the pending law so as not to disrupt the Israeli government’s crucial coordination with the PA. To that effect, one observer suspects that H.R. 702, which was introduced earlier this week, may be the necessary legislative fix. Congress, however, likely will not address the major concerns before the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (see above) takes effect February 1, due in large part to the unresolved government shutdown.

“Rejecting Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitic Hatred in the United States and Around the World.” On January 23, Representative Lee Zeldin (R-New York) and five of his Republican colleagues introduced H. Res. 72. This resolution, if passed, would express the sense of the House of Representatives that it rejects what the lawmakers characterize as growing anti-Israel sentiment in the United States, alongside the documented growth of anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world. The resolution includes language that also targets two of their Democratic colleagues in the House, Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), because of their public support of a boycott against Israel. It is unlikely that this resolution passes, or even receives a vote, but it was referred to the House Foreign Affairs and House Judiciary Committees for consideration.

II. Executive Branch

1) Treasury Department

Treasury Levies Sanctions on Iran for Supporting Militias in Syria. On January 24, the Treasury Department announced a new round of sanctions on Iran, this time targeting an airline company tied to a previously sanctioned airline and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an Armenian general sales agent who worked with sanctioned Iranian airlines, and two Iran-backed militias operating inside Syria. The militias—the Fatemiyoun Division and Zaynabiyoun Brigade—are made up of Afghan and Pakistani individuals largely recruited by the IRGC Quds Force inside Iran. These groups are just two of a legion of fighters that Tehran deploys in Syria, along with fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia groups.

2) US at the United Nations

US Representative Tells UN that Poland Conference No Longer About Iran. This week, Acting US Ambassador to the United Nations Jonathan Cohen tried to push back on the perception that next month’s US-Poland joint conference on Middle East peace and stability is simply cover for the United States to bash Iran. After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the conference earlier this month, many observers—including diplomats of US-allied European states—believed it to be another Trump Administration ploy to try and isolate Iran in the international community. This is despite the fact that key US allies like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have maintained friendlier ties with Tehran and are working in concert to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action alive.

The Europeans are reluctant to send high ranking diplomatic officials to the conference if it is simply going to be a venue for a one-sided attack of Iran, and this could prompt the Trump Administration to broaden the topics of discussion. However, Iran hawk Brian Hook, who is a senior advisor to the secretary of state, is planning the conference on behalf of the State Department and Secretary Pompeo. He told Fox News this week that the ministerial meeting will “address Middle East stability and Iran.” The State Department released details of the ministerial that ostensibly broaden the topics of discussion beyond Iran.

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