October 2nd marks the one year anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s death at the hands of a Saudi execution squad. Khashoggi’s brutal slaying—reportedly at the command of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)—was, as Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) put it, “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for Saudi Arabia. Prior to that, the young crown prince had made a number of reckless decisions that frustrated many on Capitol Hill, including ravaging Yemen with an ill-advised and poorly executed war, kidnapping Lebanon’s sitting prime minister, and arbitrarily jailing and reportedly torturing Saudi citizens, including high-profile female activists. But Khashoggi was a known personality in Washington and his death was followed by a storm of outrage and a desire for justice.
In the year since, members of Congress have tried repeatedly to directly and indirectly hold Saudi Arabia and MbS accountable for Khashoggi’s killing. On September 26, a group of representatives and senators gathered on Capitol Hill for an event called “Justice for Jamal” to recount their previous efforts at finding the truth and achieving accountability as well as forging a path forward to keep fighting for Khashoggi’s case.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia), for instance, spoke about a new bill he introduced (H.R. 4507) known as the Protect Saudi Dissidents Act. Introduced on September 26, his bill would accomplish a number of things, including prohibiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia until such time that its human rights record improves. This legislation would also forbid US entities from transferring surveillance technology to the kingdom, which is frequently used to monitor activists and dissidents, and would shut down any diplomatic facility in the United States found to be facilitating the surveillance and harassment of Saudi nationals in the country.
Others, like Senator Menendez and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) are renewing efforts to pass legislation previously considered. Menendez’s bill, the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, has stalled in the Senate, as has Malinowski’s Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act, which passed the House 405-7. Both are trying to revive their bills and both are pushing for Malinowski’s text to be included in the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which is being negotiated between the House and Senate at present. Both pieces of legislation, should they become law, would address Khashoggi’s murder and those responsible for it, as well as Riyadh’s disastrous war in Yemen.
Finally, two senators are pursuing tactics that, while not tangibly punishing Saudi Arabia or MbS, would certainly be embarrassing for the kingdom and would go a long way to further entrench public desire to see Riyadh held accountable. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) is pushing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to investigate Khashoggi’s murder and the Saudi regime’s role in it. Because Khashoggi was a US resident, the FBI would have jurisdiction to pursue the case. In addition, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is looking to use the annual intelligence authorization bill to compel the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to produce an unclassified report on Khashoggi’s murder. The DNI oversees the entire intelligence community, including the Central Intelligence Agency which concluded that MbS likely orchestrated the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. If this legislative effort fails or the White House stonewalls Congress, Wyden vowed to invoke a little known provision of a law that allows members of the congressional intelligence committees to produce a resolution and compel a vote that, if successful, would force the DNI to turn over information about Khashoggi’s case.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has been a stain on Saudi Arabia’s reputation and has underscored the dissonance between the values that two purported allies hold true. In response, members of Congress, particularly Democrats, have striven to hold the Saudi regime and its mercurial crown prince accountable. As Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) said at the “Justice for Jamal” event, “instead of ‘justice for Jamal,’ [the Trump] administration is helping the Saudi government get away with murder.” Nevertheless, members of Congress continue to signal that they are committed to pursuing justice and accountability for Jamal Khashoggi.
Also Happening This Week in Washington
Reaffirming the Strong Partnership Between Tunisia and the United States. Starting on September 25, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee marked up and passed S. Res. 236, which expresses the sense of the Senate that the United States values its bilateral partnership with Tunisia. The resolution also urges the government in Tunisia to remain committed to furthering its nascent experiment in democracy.
Remembering the 25th Anniversary of the Bombing of AMIA in Buenos Aires. During the same markup the committee passed S. Res. 277, which commemorates the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), a Jewish community center in Argentina. The United States determined that this attack was carried out by a Lebanese Hezbollah operative with backing from Iran. Senators also want the Argentinian government to proceed with an investigation into the attack. The resolution states that in the 25 years since the attack, “the investigation into the bombing has been stymied by international inaction, political interference, investigative misconduct, and allegations of cover-ups.”
Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Budget. On September 26, the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up and passed S. 2583, which sets out the budget for the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, and programs related to foreign affairs. Here is a thorough breakdown of the proposed budget and how it affects the Middle East and North Africa. During the markup, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) was able to win approval of an amendment that would require the United States to investigate instances where Saudi officials helped Saudi nationals flee the United States while being investigated or prosecuted for crimes committed against US citizens. Other interesting provisions include $75 million for the Palestinian security forces, which is supposed to circumvent the law that says accepting US aid would allow the Palestinian authority to be sued in US courts. The prohibition on Saudi military education assistance is also maintained in this fiscal year’s budget.
2) Personnel and Correspondence
Reps. Schneider, Schweikert Write to Trade Rep. over Israel Tariff Waiver. On September 25, Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) and David Schweikert (R-Arizona) wrote to the Trump Administration’s lead representative on trade questioning why Israel has not been granted a waiver to free it from the administration’s steel tariffs. Trump has used steel and aluminum tariffs primarily as a tool against China’s unfair trade practices, but as a result, US allies in Europe and Israel have been subject to the taxes as well. These representatives are urging the administration to issue waivers and exempt Israel from the tariffs to demonstrate the “deep trust and mutual respect that encompasses this vital [US-Israeli] relationship.”
Lawmakers Rally around Egyptian Protesters. Since grassroots protests have sprung up around Egypt in recent days, over 2,300 young Egyptians have been imprisoned by Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s regime. In response, US lawmakers have been tweeting their support and the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee released a joint statement supporting the protesters’ right to demonstrate peacefully.
Bipartisan Letter on Syria War Crimes. As of September 30, Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) were preparing to send a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft regarding Syria. At the UN General Assembly meeting last week, issues surrounding possible war crimes in Syria were raised at the highest levels. Now, members of Congress are calling on the US Mission to the United Nations to continue raising Syria’s potential war crimes and lend political support to the body to hold these actors responsible.
3) Hearings and Briefings
Sens. Romney, Shaheen Discuss Syria Study Group’s Recommendations. On September 26, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) participated in an event to mark the release of the Syria Study Group’s final report and recommendations for US policy regarding the conflict. The duo endorsed the study group’s recommendations and urged the current administration to take a strong leadership role in helping determine a political solution to the conflict in Syria. Arab Center Washington DC published an analysis of the group’s report in the September 25 update.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
Greenblatt Pens Op-Ed Opposing Palestinian Fundraising Conference. Just months ago White House staff—particularly advisors Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt—were championing their efforts in Manama, Bahrain to bring economic prosperity to the Palestinian people. Now, however, Greenblatt opposes a conference that produces actual, tangible results for Palestinians, despite the symbolic pledges he and his team produced in Manama. Greenblatt wrote an op-ed for Fox News arguing that the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee’s donor conference is misguided and would do little to change the “downward trajectory of Palestinian lives and futures.”
2) Department of State
Pompeo Speaks at UANI Conference alongside Despised Dissidents. While in New York City for the annual meeting on the UN General Assembly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared before a gathering held by United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). This summit was notable for its inclusion of members of an Iranian opposition faction that was once deemed a terrorist group by the US government, one that is often described as a cult-like blend of Marxism and Islam that is deeply distrusted by average Iranians both in Iran and in the diaspora. Pompeo largely reiterated talking points from many of his other speeches on Iran.
Special Rep. Jeffrey, Deputy Assistant Secretary DiNanno Discuss Verification, Compliance. On September 26, Ambassador James Jeffrey, who is both the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS), and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas DiNanno gave a press conference to brief reporters on developments in their respective portfolios dealing with Syria. Ambassador Jeffrey said the United States remains committed to accomplishing four goals: realizing a political settlement on the basis of UN Security Council resolution 2254; reaching a ceasefire agreement to prevent Bashar al-Assad from moving to attack Idlib; ensuring the defeat of IS; and holding the Assad regime accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. To the last point, DiNanno noted that the United States is contributing more assistance in order to help the international community investigate the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
On Syria, the foreign ministers of several states, including Secretary Pompeo, issued a joint statement calling on the parties in the conflict to strive for a political solution to the conflict based on UN Security Council resolution 2254.
Trump Administration to Slash Refugee Cap to 18,000. Despite that fact that some 71 million people are displaced around the globe, the Trump Administration announced that for fiscal year 2020, it will, at most, resettle 18,000 refugees in the United States. It is noteworthy that the administration has routinely resettled numbers far below even the paltry caps that it had set for itself in previous years.
3) US Commission on International Religious Freedom
Religious Minorities’ Fight to Remain in Iraq. On September 26, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a hearing about “the religious freedom situation in Iraq and the conditions that would enable religious minorities to return to and flourish in their communities.” The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal entity created by Congress to monitor and report on threats to religious freedom globally. This hearing brought together the chair and two vice chairs of the commission to hear testimony from Hallam Ferguson, the Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Middle East Bureau at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as the stakeholders from Iraqi religious minority communities and nongovernmental organizations.
The hearing was divided into multiple panels, with Ferguson appearing alone to share the US government’s role in supporting religious diversity in Iraq, specifically in areas formerly controlled by IS. Ferguson elaborated on the programming and funding efforts put forth by USAID to support vulnerable communities like the Yezidis in Sinjar and Nineveh. He also outlined the problems still facing vulnerable religious minorities in Iraq. In some areas, IS still has a presence or is resurgent and, in other places, Yezidis and Assyrians are harassed or threatened by Kurdish and Arab militias. Ferguson told the panel that there is still much work to be done to protect the religious minorities in Iraq; stabilize and rebuild liberated minority areas; and cultivate a safe environment where religious minorities can return.
4) Department of Defense
Secretary Esper Meets with Head of Popular Mobilization Forces. On October 2, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, welcomed the head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Faleh al-Fayyad, to Washington. The PMF is an amalgam of some roughly 70 Iraqi militias, many of which are Shia, that grew in influence during the campaign to uproot IS. Despite US concerns about some of the militias’ ties and/or loyalty to Iran, many of these militias enjoy immense popularity and are now officially part of Iraq’s military. Esper, Milley, and Fayyad reportedly spoke about bilateral relations between the United States and Iraq, but the meeting comes after recent attacks on PMF positions by Israel—attacks that most concede would not be possible to carry out without at least US permission, if not Washington’s support. It is most probable that the trio discussed this issue as well, as Israel’s attacks on Iraqi sovereign territory is frustrating for leaders like Fayyad.