Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Preventing Iranian Destabilization of Iraq Act. On November 27, House members voted to adopt H.R. 4591, under suspended rules, which was outlined here. There is some appetite in the Senate to also take up and pass the bill, but as ACW has written previously, sanctions on Iran can have unintended and disruptive consequences for Iraq.

Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. On the same day, the House also adopted the Senate’s amendments for H.R. 390, clearing the path forward for it to go to the White House for President Trump’s signature. Even as amended, the bill hews closely to the bill that was originally outlined here.

US-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act Reauthorization. On November 28, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) voted to advance H.R. 2646, reauthorizing another three years of defense cooperation between the United States and Jordan and establishing a “Jordan Enterprise Fund.” The bill will head to the full chamber for consideration and, assuming no major amendments are offered, is likely to pass the Senate and be signed into law.

Requiring DNI Report of Khashoggi Death. As the White House continues to push back against disclosing any more information about Jamal Khashoggi’s murder than necessary, Democratic Senators Ron Wyden (Oregon), Martin Heinrich (New Mexico), and Jack Reed (Rhode Island) introduced S. 3658 on November 28. If it were to become law—which is extremely unlikely due to President Trump’s support for Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MbS) and unwillingness to publicize anything that could incriminate the young prince—the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) would have to report to the Senate the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s death in October. The bill specifically states that the DNI should provide names of any individuals responsible for or complicit in the plot, which by all reasonable assessments reaches all the way to MbS. The bill was referred to the SFRC for consideration.

Direct the Removal of US Armed Forces from Hostilities in the Republic of Yemen. ACW has written about S.J. Res. 54 a number of times since it was first proposed earlier this year. But after a failed vote last March, the resolution came back to the public’s attention this week when, by a vote of 63-37, the Senate voted to discharge the resolution from the SFRC to the floor of the Senate for debate. It is a positive step, but it is only one of many potential hurdles cleared. Seeing Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) success in the Senate, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) offered H.J. Res. 142 on November 29 which would terminate the US military’s involvement in Yemen and Reps. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) proposed H.Con. Res. 142, which would do the same as Amash’s, but is not legally binding like a joint resolution would be. Both were referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) for consideration.

Stop Corrupt Iranian Oligarchs and Entities Act. Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tennessee) introduced H.R. 7182 this week, which is intended to force the State Department to compose a report on the Iranian regime oligarchs and entities and what the effects of sanctioning them would be. The bill will go to the HFAC for consideration, but it is uncertain how much support it will garner amongst Kustoff’s colleagues. It is not a lack of support that would hinder the bill, but there are questions about the usefulness of such reporting requirements when most serious Iran scholars already recognize who the true economic powers are in Iran and how corrupt actors like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) actually stand to profit more when the United States sanctions the Iranian economy because they control so much of the black market.

2) Hearings

US Policy Toward Syria (Part II). On November 29, the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held the last of a two-part series of hearings on Washington’s strategy in Syria (a summary of part I can be found in this Washington Policy Weekly). For this follow-up hearing, the subcommittee hosted the Trump Administration’s Special Envoy for Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, and Deputy Assistant Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Robert Jenkins, to get their thoughts on the latest developments in Syria and their recommendations for US policy there.

Ambassador Jeffrey, as he has done in multiple public appearances, reiterated that the administration’s three goals in Syria include: defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS); de-escalating the broader conflict and realizing the withdrawal of all Iranian-backed groups from Syrian territory; and establishing a stable Syrian government as proposed by UN Resolution 2254. As for Mr. Jenkins, he gave a robust overview of Washington’s humanitarian assistance in Syria through USAID. He specifically detailed the aid given in an effort to assist Syria’s internally displaced persons and returning refugees, as well as the agency’s food provision programs.

Ranking Member Ted Deutch (D-Florida)––as if already preparing for January 2019 when he will likely take over as chairman of the subcommittee––repeatedly questioned the administration’s representatives about its plans for actually pushing Iranian forces out of Syria. Ambassador Jeffrey largely reiterated his talking points about the US goal of ending Iranian influence in Syria but emphasized the potential threat of an empowered alliance between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Iran and its threat to the broader region and not just for Syria.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Get Closed-Door Briefing on Saudi Arabia, Yemen. Before the senators opted to discharge the aforementioned joint resolution (S.J. Res. 54), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis were dispatched to Capitol Hill to give a closed-door briefing to the entire Senate. The Trump Administration undoubtedly was trying to talk the senators down from supporting S.J. Res. 54, but, as the vote tally showed, the two secretaries were unsuccessful. Many senators actually came out of the briefing more frustrated with President Trump’s policies toward Riyadh, in no small part because the administration allegedly (though it denies reports) barred Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Gina Haspel from joining the briefing. To many senators, it looked like a coverup in defense of MbS. Haspel is the sole administration official to have heard an audio tape that purportedly captured the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. By refusing to send her to speak to the Senate, the administration appears to have done more harm than good—now Senators like Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) are calling for a separate briefing from Haspel while Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) has threatened to disrupt Senate business if he doesn’t hear from her.

II. Executive Branch

1) State Department

Two Potential Ambassadors Advance Confirmation Path. The SFRC pushed forward two nominations for ambassadors to the Arab League states of Tunisia and Comoros. If the pair are confirmed by the full Senate, Michael Pelletier will split his time between Comoros and neighboring Madagascar, while Donald Blome would head to Tunis. These are promising decisions because, as it stands, President Trump has failed to even nominate ambassadors to several Arab states but, if this trend continues, he is willing to select career diplomats to represent Washington in the region. In addition to ambassadors, the SFRC voted to further along Michael Harvey’s nomination to be Assistant Administrator of USAID for the Middle East.

2) UN Ambassador

Trump Administration Nixes UN Resolution on Yemen. CNN reported this week that the United States, somewhat unexpectedly, put a hold on a United Nations resolution calling for a ceasefire in Yemen. US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was reportedly in favor of the resolution, meaning that directives for squashing the vote likely came from higher up—ostensibly from someone in the White House who fears angering Saudi Arabia. This is just another setback for ending the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen that turns four-years old next March; and it does not seem like the Trump Administration is any closer to forcing the Saudis to make any good faith effort to end the fighting in that country. It is interesting to note that, while the Trump Administration appeared to be backing Riyadh in Washington and New York, Secretary Pompeo announced that the United States would be providing emergency aid to Yemen, no doubt as a serious effort to alleviate suffering, but arguably as a political maneuver to try and deflect blame from the administration’s unwillingness to even slightly pressure the Saudis.

3) Defense Security Cooperation Agency

DSCA Announces New Arms Sales Agreements. The entity tasked with coordinating arms sales between the Departments of Defense and State—the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA)—notified Congress of a host of new arms sales that the State Department says should be allowed to move forward. Morocco is interested in purchasing 162 Abrams tanks; Egypt is seeking 10 AH-64E Apache Attack Helicopters and tens of thousands of ammunition rounds for tanks; and Qatar is seeking to purchase a $215 million advanced surface-to-air missile system. Congress gets to review these proposed deals and, should it want to prevent any from passing, it would need to submit a joint resolution of disapproval. That, in fact, is exactly what Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has already done for the two Egypt sales (S.J. Res. 67 and 68) and the one to Qatar (S.J. Res. 66). As the last Washington Policy Weekly shows, these resolutions are privileged, meaning that even if the SFRC refuses to consider them, Paul can force a floor vote like he did with Bahrain. There is no reason to assume he would not do so, as he is the most vocal critic of the United States arming Middle East states.

4) USAID

USAID to End West Bank, Gaza Programs in 2019. A report this week outlined USAID’s plans to phase out its programs in the West Bank and Gaza strip in the coming months before shuttering the operation altogether in 2019. USAID said earlier this summer that it would not receive its budget for operations in the Palestinian Territories, but this announcement illustrates how the Trump Administration’s attempt to pressure the Palestinian Authority to negotiate with Washington and Israel is harming Palestinians on the ground.

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