Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Senate Resolution to Recognize Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Republican Senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and Tom Cotton (Arkansas) introduced S. Res. 732, which expresses the sense of the Senate that the United States should recognize Israeli control of the occupied Golan Heights. Israel has occupied major parts of the Syrian territory since the end of the 1967 war and annexed it in 1981 and many in Israel and the United States have urged past presidents to acknowledge Israeli sovereignty over it.

Block Iran Illicit Finance Act. On December 17, a group of House members introduced H.R. 7321, another bill looking to levy sanctions on Iran. The legislation mirrors a recent bill proposed by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Those critical of the bills note that their language would alter the sanctions regime against Iran in such a way that limits the already meager humanitarian exemptions originally afforded to Iran in order to allow the country to import crucial goods like medicine. House members are gearing up to challenge the Trump Administration on efforts that have suppressed the flow of humanitarian goods to Iran since sanctions were reimposed, so it is difficult to see bills like these becoming law if they are reintroduced in the next Congress.

Resolution that US Should Continue Limited Military Activities in Syria. As detailed below, President Donald Trump decided this week to withdraw some 2,000 troops from Syria, enraging many in Congress. In response, senators introduced S. Res. 738 expressing the sense of the chamber that the United States should remain engaged in Syria in the same capacity—mainly supporting Syrian forces as they advance on the so-called Islamic State’s last stronghold in Syria. The resolution was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but with few legislative days remaining before this Congress ends, it is likely that any such effort will have to be taken up in the new year.

Legislation Regulating Nuclear Cooperation Agreements. This week, members in both chambers of Congress introduced bills that would alter the way the United States cooperates with foreign partners in the field of civilian nuclear energy. In the House, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) offered H.R. 7351, which seeks to mandate congressional approval of any cooperation agreement the United States forms with another country. Sherman also introduced H.R. 7350, which would require that any agreement signed between Washington and Saudi Arabia receive a joint resolution of approval from Congress. Senator Ed Markey’s (D-Massachusetts) S. 3785 mirrors Sherman’s latter bill. A nuclear Saudi Arabia has been unsettling for many in Congress, who in the last year have come to view Riyadh as reckless in light of its ongoing war in Yemen and murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istsnbul. These bills could gain major traction next year when Democrats hold the majority in the House of Representatives.

Sanctions on Palestinians Who Supposedly Support Terrorists. Senator Cruz introduced S. 3801 this week, which would impose sanctions on any Palestinian or Palestinian entity that supposedly provided financial support to Palestinian “terrorists” who committed violence against Israelis. This language is similar to the Taylor Force Act that was passed earlier this year, but instead of the United States withholding funding amounts equal to those spent supporting Palestinians or their families accused of committing acts of terrorism, Cruz’s bill would go further, actually sanctioning individuals or entities. This will likely include the freezing of assets and barring travel to the United States.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Sanders, Feinstein Come Out Against Legislation Barring Boycotts of Israel. There was speculation that members of Congress would try to jam two pieces of Israel-centered legislation into the end of the year spending omnibus bill that many criticize as overly broad and likely unconstitutional. One bill in particular, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, has raised numerous concerns about infringing on Americans’ rights to free speech, including political and economic boycotts, by potentially penalizing them if they were to participate in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement or any internationally organized boycott of Israel. Those concerns led two of the Senate’s most prominent members to write to their Senate colleagues voicing their opposition to including the text into the spending bill. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) wrote a letter urging senators to reject the language as it is likely unconstitutional, according to lawyers and activists. The legislation did not make its way into the spending bill as of yet, but there is no doubt that House and Senate members will try and revive the effort during the next Congress.

II. Executive Branch

1) State Department

Ambassador Jeffrey Discusses Syria Policy. Ambassador James Jeffrey, who serves as the Trump Administration’s Special Envoy for Syria Engagement, spoke at the Atlantic Council this week after having spent last week in Turkey and Jordan addressing developments in Syria. At the event, Jeffrey discussed the United States’ policy positions toward the country in the coming year. He outlined three goals for US policy there: realize a decisive and enduring military defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS); implement the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2254 framework for reaching a political settlement to the Syrian war; and ensure that Iran withdraws ground forces from Syrian territory.

Jeffrey did not go into much detail about the military aspect, but he spoke at length about the administration’s reasoning for focusing on the other two goals and how he and his colleagues hope to realize them. UNSC resolution 2254 serves as a pragmatic framework for reaching a negotiated agreement, Jeffrey said; he noted that all parties to the conflict have come to the conclusion that there is no military solution to the years-long war. Jeffrey said the biggest question, though, is one for Bashar al-Assad: will he compromise with Syrian rebel groups and US-backed forces? Here, Jeffrey made sure to affirm that the administration does not seek regime change, though he contradicted that statement moments later by saying that Washington hopes to see a fundamentally different political situation in Damascus that does not include Assad.

In order to realize a political settlement with concessions from the Assad regime and disengagement of Iranian forces, Jeffrey said that the administration would try to mobilize international support and use reconstruction aid as leverage over the process. The ambassador noted that after Israel’s war with the Lebanese Hezbollah in 2006, the international community came together to help finance reconstruction in Lebanon. He told the audience that the international community generally—and the United States specifically—would not contribute that kind of aid unless it receives assurances from Damascus that Assad and Iran would not play significant roles in Syria’s politics moving forward.

Secretary Pompeo Meets with Oman’s Foreign Minister. On December 19, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Omani counterpart, Omani State Minister for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, met to discuss regional developments of mutual concern. Pompeo lauded the Omanis for their constructive role in helping facilitate the UN-led peace process for Yemen. In addition, and while it was absent from the State Department readout, one would assume that the two talked about the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council dispute between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand, and Qatar on the other. Muscat has long been a constructive presence in some of the more delicate negotiations in the Gulf and in the broader Middle East, and the Omanis are looking to leverage that reputation to get more involved in a potential Israeli and Palestinian peace agreement. To that end, Mr. bin Alawi also met with President Trump’s envoy to peace negotiations, Jason Greenblatt.

2) White House

Trump Signals Troop Withdrawal from Syria. The week’s developments underscore the dissonance between the approaches of the State Department and the Oval Office. After Ambassador Jeffrey gave his thorough assessment of US policy in Syria moving forward (see above)—a policy that appeared based on the idea that US troops would remain in Syria to support local partners—President Trump issued a declaration of victory over IS via Twitter and hinted that the development has freed him to withdraw troops from the country. After his tweet, a number of reports began swirling—each citing administration officials and officials at the Pentagon—about what his statement means for the US military presence in Syria. A few hours later, the White House released a statement that it has begun drawing down the troops there, but it did not directly address whether a new policy had been decided.

Hours after the president’s tweet, reports appeared to verify that Trump had indeed ordered the withdrawal, even over the objections of Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The State Department decided to evacuate its staff as well.

Trump Administration Extends Sanctions Waiver for Iraq. It is being reported that the Trump Administration opted to extend the previous 45-day waiver to 90 days and allow Iraq to continue trading with neighboring Iran. The maneuver is intended to allow Baghdad time to wean itself from its energy dependence on Iran and diversify its options, including by signing deals with European and American companies.

3) Cabinet

UN Ambassador Haley Attends Final UN Meeting, Calls on Palestinians to Accept Peace Proposal. This was the last week for the United States’ UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, in Turtle Bay. In her final appearance, she pushed the global community, and the Palestinians in particular, to accept the Trump Administration’s peace plan proposal for the Israelis and Palestinians once it is finally revealed. Short on specifics, Haley lauded the plan as being the best for current times, noting it would take advantage of “new technology” and that it recognizes the facts on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories.

Secretary of Defense Mattis Will Retire February 28. After the drama surrounding the White House’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, the president tweeted that Secretary Mattis would be retiring at the end of February. The timing, though, suggests that perhaps Mattis was resigning in protest after he lobbied against the troop withdrawals and Trump pushed forward nevertheless. Mattis will leave with a mixed record as secretary of defense. Some, including allies in Europe and elsewhere, considered him a source of stability and consistency in an otherwise chaotic Trump Administration. Others, though, remember that he is still a hawkish military official who went along with many of the Trump Administration’s most controversial moves and that it did not appear that he actually stood up to or challenged the president on many issues. Regardless of his legacy, one thing is certain: any nominee for secretary of defense will likely be a Trump loyalist who will be outspoken in his or her defense of the president, much in the same way Pompeo has proven to be after Rex Tillerson left the administration.lists around the world as well as on the increasing threats to press freedoms, particularly in the Arab world.

As Time Magazine’s choice for Person of the Year denotes, numerous journalists around the world pay the ultimate price for their work as they search for the truth and inform the public. Reports show that 53 journalists were killed in 2018, including 13 in Afghanistan, nine in Syria, three in Yemen, and two Palestinians murdered by Israeli soldiers during the protests in Gaza. Journalists have also been killed in reprisal for their work in Slovakia, Bulgaria, Malta, Mexico, and Brazil, among other places. Additionally, 251 journalists were imprisoned around the globe in 2018, with Turkey topping the list for the third consecutive year as the world’s largest jailer of journalists (at 68) and Egypt imprisoning a record number. As journalists face a global increase in verbal and physical attacks, only 13 percent of people around the world live in countries where they enjoy freedom of the press, which is a human right and a necessary ingredient for accountability and democratic governance.

Evidently, Khashoggi is not alone, and his gruesome murder and silencing will not mark the end of brutal attacks on journalism and freedom of expression. Attempts to delegitimize the press, rampant social media clampdowns, and increased authoritarian tendencies and autocratic alliances all wear down the causes of truth and human rights.

Delegitimizing the Press

Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul marks a pivotal moment in the global order. It shows that authoritarian leaders, such as those in Saudi Arabia, can literally get away with murder, silencing dissent at home and abroad with impunity. Most notable has been the response by the Trump Administration, which chose to prioritize trade and countering Iran over human rights and political accountability. Despite CIA conclusions implicating Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in the killing, President Trump has consistently been evasive regarding blaming the crown prince and taking any action against the kingdom.

The statement by the White House failed to mention Khashoggi’s role at the Washington Post;  remarkably, it reiterated the Saudi official narrative that the journalist was an “enemy of the state.” Not surprisingly, Trump has displayed no concern for freedom of the press and protection of journalists. In fact, the president himself is known for his attacks against the media, which he called “the true enemy of the people” on the day that a bomb was sent to CNN.

The United States has traditionally been the global defender of human rights and freedom of the press, articulated in the US constitution. However, the most vocal head of state in the case of the slain journalist has been Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—also known as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. This lack of international leadership and the environment of impunity will only perpetuate further violence and repression against journalists, and it will embolden authoritarian regimes around the world to silence critical voices and perpetrate violations of press freedoms and human rights. The growing global trends of delegitimizing the press are dangerous not only for the lives and safety of journalists, but also for the foundations of democracy. Indeed, the rights-based international order is clearly disintegrating.

New Authoritarian Alliances 

The global decline in freedom of the press has been matched with a steady increase in strongman politics. From Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey to Russia, Hungary, and Brazil, attempts to throttle opposition and silence criticism have grown more repressive. The rise of populism and anti-globalism has contributed to erosion of the international rights system, with governments moving away from accountability and transparency.

The current environment has fostered new authoritarian alliances based on shared interests. MBS, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and the Trump Administration have forged a populist alliance of shared disregard for truth, rights, freedoms, and international law and order, with the overarching quest to curb Iran’s influence. Secret meetings between Saudi Arabia and Israel have taken place since Trump took office in late 2016; they intensified when MBS became crown prince. Netanyahu came out in support of Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi killing and urged the White House to maintain its support of MBS.

As such, this military, security, and intelligence cooperation, facilitated by the United States, is likely to heighten the abuses against press freedom. In fact, NSO Group, an Israeli company, provided hacked messages from Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia before the brutal murder. Recently, Saudi Arabia started issuing special waivers allowing Israeli businessmen to enter the kingdom without showing Israeli passports. Surveillance technology to monitor and crack down on critics constitutes one of the primary business deals under discussion. As is often the case, freedoms and rights are the most immediate casualties.

Same Autocratic Regimes, New Ways of Repression

Despite earlier predictions by cyber-optimists, developments in the field of information technology do not necessarily expand the opportunities for expression that new media tools potentially afford. In fact, new tools of expression have brought new methods of censorship, pushing press freedom into a decline. Authoritarian rulers continue to practice traditional and direct means of censorship; examples include blocking websites and services in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, shutting down the Internet that serves marginalized groups in Bahrain, and generally removing objectionable content and blocking critical voices from the Web. Further measures have been employed to target and silence activists through their social media accounts and to stifle dissent using new media tools.

While the media ecosystem is rapidly evolving, the power structures and systems of privilege that govern it have not changed. Laws that restrict freedom of the press and criminalize expression both offline and online remain in place. In the Middle East in particular, 2018 saw an upsurge in these tactics, with the region ranking at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel are known to use the pretext of terrorism charges to mask crackdowns on journalists and activists.

Perhaps more alarming are the more insidious means of suppression. Authoritarian regimes can essentially undermine the press’s ability to do its job by controlling the public sphere; to be sure, campaigns of disinformation, in combination with accusations of “fake news” against critical press outlets, stifle citizens’ ability to assess the credibility of information. The nature of social media sharing magnifies the power of spreading false information by state actors for political gain. Prominent examples include Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections and the Saudi Twitter armies disseminating “industrial scale propaganda” against opponents and critics. The hostile and intimidating environment of attacks against the press, legitimized by president Trump and members of his administration who claim that the media pushes fake news, has been readily adopted and repeated by authoritarian leaders in the Arab world such as Bashar al-Assad. Other methods have included delegitimizing media institutions and the rights organizations that protect press freedoms, much like the NGO law in Egypt.

Press freedom is the litmus test for democracy. Khashoggi’s murder and the absence of freedoms of expression and public discourse in the Arab world highlight the dire state of democracy in the region. Freedom of the press is the most basic tenet in the road to a functioning democracy; to that end, the Arab world needs legal frameworks to protect journalists, transparent media and government institutions, and safe spaces for expression and debate.

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