Condemning the Assad Regime and its Supporters for War Crimes in Syria. On November 30, Rep. Brian Mast (R-Florida) introduced H. Res. 1165 which condemns Bashar al-Assad and his supporters (i.e., Iran and Iranian proxies) for continued war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. The bill was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) for consideration, but there is an appetite for similar proposals in Washington. In fact, the White House announced last week that it fully supports the passage of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act which would target the Assad regime for acts of violence against civilians.
Mohammed bin Salman Resolution. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) offered a nonbinding resolution this week that would express the sense of the Senate that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) should be held responsible for some of his policies. specifically, S. Res. 714 says that his roles in the Yemen crisis, the Qatar blockade, and the Jamal Khashoggi affair, among others, warrant censure from the Senate. The resolution will head to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) for consideration.
Commemorating the One-Year Anniversary of Jerusalem Recognition. This week, a number of House members introduced a concurrent resolution commemorating President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year. H. Con. Res. 144 also applauds Trump’s decision to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, as well as reaffirms the “eternal friendship” between the United States and Israel. The concurrent resolution was referred to the HFAC for consideration.
Senate Holds Confirmation Hearings for New Military Commanders. This week, the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC) held a confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump’s choice to lead US Central Command (CENTCOM), which has jurisdiction over US military operations in the Middle East and North Africa, and Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which overseas special operations globally, but that has a regional presence in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr. and Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke testified for their CENTCOM and SOCOM positions, respectively.
During the SASC hearing, Lt. Gen. McKenzie spoke at length about Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Iran—though none of the committee members asked him about Egypt, which is curious since Egypt is the second largest recipient of US security aid in the region. McKenzie, unsurprisingly, focused on the military’s anti-Islamic State (IS) operations, stating that ending IS’s presence in the lower Euphrates River valley is the top priority for the United States. In fact, McKenzie said that uprooting IS is the only agenda the military has, which is contradictory to statements made by administration officials about the need for the military to push back against Iranian proxies in Syria. However, McKenzie still addressed that question.
When prompted, he agreed that Iran was a security threat to the region more broadly but to American partners in Iraq specifically, and he even agreed with the president’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA—a decision that his predecessor, General Joseph Votel, had not supported. However, he said that the future struggles in Syria—be they a future IS insurgency that would inherit the current organization or the internal power struggles with Iranian proxies—would be left to local forces, not the US military. McKenzie also sided with Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) in saying that in order for Syria to be stabilized, the United States will have to offer reconstruction funds, at least in the eastern part of the country. Lawmakers have been split on funds for Syria, with some arguing funding should only go to locals in areas outside of Bashar al-Assad’s control and others objecting to any American contribution to postwar reconstruction. On the other hand, Arabic sources have reported this week that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is restoring roughly $22 million1 in assistance to Syria’s Idlib.
On Yemen, McKenzie signaled his support for the Saudi-led war, saying it was important for the US to assist its security partners against Iran, who he said was most responsible for the fighting in the country. Senators pushed back against his claim, citing Saudi and Emirati operations that have resulted in countless civilian deaths and a humanitarian crisis, as well as the Emiratis’ secret torture and assassination schemes in Yemen. McKenzie and senators debated the legality involved and whether the military was authorized to aid in the Yemen war; but the nominee largely side-stepped the questions, arguing instead that the United States has an interest in being a part of the anti-al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) efforts in Yemen.
Senate Foreign Relations Holds Confirmation Hearing for Yemen Ambassador. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a confirmation hearing to listen to the nominee for the ambassadorship to Yemen. The committee hosted several nominees, but Christopher Henzel drew much of the members’ interest due to the ongoing debate about US policy in Yemen. Henzel, who will leave a diplomatic positing in Riyadh should he be confirmed, largely sided with the Trump Administration’s assessment of the situation in Yemen. Although he said he supported the humanitarian efforts in the country, he was less critical of the Saudi-led coalition’s operations there than the senators questioning him. Largely, Henzel tried to convince the senators that he would be the right choice for the job because he would work with all the interested actors there to shore up humanitarian relief efforts, reach a political solution—under the framework the United Nations has proposed—to the fighting, and help the Yemenis install a stable, working government.
3) Personnel and Correspondence
Senators React to CIA Director’s Briefing. Responding to pressure from Capitol Hill, the White House dispatched Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director, Gina Haspel, to the Senate to give a limited, closed-door briefing to a bipartisan group of senators. Early comments from senators were not good for the administration. Senate leaders involved in the meeting, like SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), left the briefing more certain than before that MbS was directly responsible for ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Senator Lindsey Graham seemed very certain and called for the US-Saudi relationship to be downgraded as long as MbS remains in de facto control of the kingdom. Graham has been surprisingly outspoken in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, recently even penning an op-ed urging Congress to do more to push back against MbS. Although Graham did not support the underlying language of S.J. Res. 54, he worked to garner support for an amendment to the resolution that included the language from his own bill, S. 3652, which would levy sanctions on Saudi officials and end arms sales to Riyadh. Additionally, Graham introduced the aforementioned resolution to express the sense of Congress that MbS was directly responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
Moving forward, Sen. Corker predicted that S.J. Res. 54 would receive a vote on December 12 and would most likely have the majority votes necessary to pass, though the Trump team has already said it will veto the legislation. Senators are still negotiating the terms of the debate for that joint resolution, as well as the possibility of adopting the other Saudi-related bills mentioned above.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
Bolton Indicates US Support for Israeli anti-Hezbollah Operation, MbS in Saudi Arabia. At the Wall Street Journal’s annual CEO Council, National Security Advisor John Bolton reiterated the administration’s position that MbS was in no way implicated in intelligence interceptions, as some outlets reported, and repeated the White House’s support for the ruling family in Riyadh. Later, via a statement on Twitter, Bolton issued words of support for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) operation on the border with Lebanon, across the “Blue Line,” aimed at destroying tunnels the Israelis say Hezbollah dug under Israeli sovereign territory.
Jason Greenblatt Seeks Arab Support for UN Hamas Resolution. President Trump’s Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace process, Jason Greenblatt, reportedly sent a letter to Arab diplomats this week to ask for their help on the UN General Assembly resolution vote condemning Hamas. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was angling to block the resolution and Greenblatt was hoping to recruit Arab states in an effort to pass the resolution. Ultimately, despite Greenblatt’s and US Ambassador Nikki Haley’s lobbying efforts, the resolution received a plurality of votes but fell short of the two-thirds threshold necessary for the body to adopt it. This was Haley’s final stand at Turtle Bay, as she is set to leave her post at the end of the year. President Trump announced that he will officially nominate State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert to replace her.
2) State Department
Pompeo Holds Media Interviews Before Heading to Brussels. On Saturday, December 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held an interview with CNN to discuss, among other things, the specifics about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East before flying to Brussels where he met with the Israeli and Libyan Prime Ministers, as well as representatives of North American Treaty Organization (NATO) states. Pompeo’s appearance on CNN could very well be described as an extension of what some observers have characterized as “fawning over Saudi Arabia.” During the interview, host Wolf Blitzer pressed Pompeo on the administration’s continued support for Riyadh and its young crown prince and the secretary maintained that MbS was not involved in the murder—though the CIA and many senators attest that he was. He also continued to cite the need to maintain the current US-Saudi relationship.
Pompeo’s meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu focused on mutual areas of interest, including Israel’s apparent warming to the broader Arab world. Pompeo and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj met and discussed efforts to realize a unified, stable, and transparent national government in Tripoli as well as continued counterterrorism cooperation. In between his meetings with Netanyahu and al-Sarraj, Secretary Pompeo spoke at an event of the German Marshall Fund where he criticized European allies and pushed back against their criticism of Trump Administration policies.
Ambassador Jeffrey Briefs Press on Syria. On December 3, the Special Envoy for Syria Engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, held a press briefing at the State Department to give an update on developments in Syria. Jeffrey’s briefing was basically meant to brief the public about the developments in negotiating a political settlement to the Syrian war after last week’s failed talks in Astana between Syrian opposition figures, the Assad regime, and Russia-Iran-Turkey trio. Jeffrey noted that not much has changed but that US officials continue meeting with all the relevant actors in the war to chart a path forward. Indeed, the State Department later announced that Jeffrey himself would be visiting Turkey and Jordan for nearly 10 days to meet with officials and other interested parties.
Special Envoy for Iran Gives Press Briefing. Earlier in the week, Secretary Pompeo released a statement condemning Iran for testing a ballistic missile, saying it violated the tenets of UN Security Council Resolution 2231—though some experts suggest that Tehran did not actually violate the resolution (see here). Later, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, gave a press briefing to update observers on the administration’s position on the Islamic Republic’s missile test. In general, Hook dismissed the notion that Iran’s missile tests were purely defensive in nature because, he said, all of Tehran’s strategic defensive concerns are self-inflicted. He nonetheless did not dispute the claim of the missiles’ defensive purpose itself.
US to Reestablish Diplomatic Mission in Somalia. The State Department announced this week that the United States, for the first time since 1991, will have a permanent diplomatic presence in Somalia. The announcement comes five years after Washington formally recognized the Somali government after years of treating the country as a failed state.
State Department Releases $745 Million Cash Transfer to Jordan. The US Embassy in Jordan released a video this week about an American $745 million cash transfer to Jordan for debt relief. This sum is part of roughly $1.6 billion the United States gives Jordan in aid, most of which helps pay down Jordan’s debt. The cash goes directly to Jordan’s treasury.
1 Source in Arabic.