Congressional Update – Week Ending April 14, 2017

Congress remains adjourned until April 24, 2017.

I. Syria

The Trump Administration waited until Congress had adjourned on April 6 before launching the bombing attack on Syria. President Trump did not seek authorization from Congress for the attack but key members of Congress were informed of the impending action. House and Senate leadership members, including the chair and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were briefed by White House and cabinet officials

Congressional reaction was swift. There were numerous statements by members of the House and Senate last week concerning Syria’s horrendous chemical weapons attack and the US response. While there was general support for the US airstrike, many members demanded congressional authorization before taking any further action against Syria. Congress also is demanding a coherent strategy for Syria from the Trump Administration. Syria is likely to be the topic of further hearings and briefings and will be the centerpiece of a vigorous debate on US policy toward Syria, when Congress returns on April 24.

On April 7, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (California) sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) asking that he immediately call the House of Representatives back into session to debate an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), following the US military action in Syria.

II. Yemen

Congress Opposes Direct Support for the anti-Houthi Coalition Led by Saudi Arabia: On April 11, 55 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Trump urging him to get congressional approval if he intends to expand US involvement in Yemen’s civil war.

The letter was sponsored by Representatives Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), Justin Amash (R-Michigan), Ted Lieu (D-California), and Walter Jones (R-North Carolina). Fifty-one Democratic members joined in signing the letter. Pocan’s press release and text of the letter are here.

The letter expresses members’ “serious concern” over reports that the Trump Administration is actively considering “direct support for the anti-Houthi coalition” of militaries led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Reports that the administration may be considering providing Saudi-led forces with surveillance and intelligence, as well as other assistance, led Pocan to sponsor the letter.

The letter goes on to state that, “Engaging our military against Yemen’s Houthis when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers clearly delineated in the Constitution. For this reason, we write to request that the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) provide, without delay, any legal justification that it would cite if the administration intends to engage in direct hostilities against Yemen’s Houthis without seeking congressional authorization.”

Congressional pressure is increasing on the Trump Administration to lay out a coherent strategy, not only for the civil war in Yemen but also for Syria. The bombing of Syria’s Shayrat Air Base last week, and reports that Saudi coalition forces are planning an invasion of Yemen’s Hodeidah port city, has only increased pressure.

III. Legislation of Interest (Introduced before the Recess)

New Iran Sanctions (HR2081): Introduced on April 7 by Representative Lee Zeldin (R-New York), the bill would “amend the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 to modify the requirement to impose sanctions with respect to the provision of specialized financing messaging services to the Central Bank of Iran and other sanctioned Iranian financial institutions.” The bill has been referred to the House Financial Services Committee. The text of the bill is not yet available.

Syria Safe Zones (HRes252): Introduced on April 6 by Representatives Darin LaHood (R-Illinois), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), and Ralph Abraham (R-Louisiana), the resolution expresses “the sense of the House of Representatives on the challenges posed to the long-term stability in Lebanon by the conflict in Syria and supporting the establishment of safe zones in Syria.”

Limit US Weapons to Saudi Arabia (SJRes40): Introduced on April 6 by Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and Al Franken (D-Minnesota), the joint resolution would provide limitations on the transfer of air-to-ground munitions from the United States to Saudi Arabia. The resolution has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC).

Condemning Asad and Chemical Attack (SRes116): Introduced on April 5 by Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), the resolution condemns “the Assad regime for its continued use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.” The resolution has been referred to the SFRC. On April 7, the committee approved the resolution, which is now pending before the full Senate.

IV. At the Think Tanks

Bipartisan Policy Center: On April 13, the Bipartisan Policy Center held a panel discussion to understand “What’s Next on Syria: Principles for US Engagement in the Middle East.” They had launched a new study and this discussion was a chance for the authors of the report to expand on the ideas and assessments featured in their collective work. The panelists included former US ambassadors Ryan Crocker, Eric Edelman, and James Jeffrey, as well as Jake Sullivan, who once served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The speakers touched on numerous points of interest regarding the ongoing Syrian conflict and the US role in it. However, major points of emphasis included what role Bashar al-Asad will or can have in a postwar Syria, the prospects for persuading Russia and/or Iran to revoke support for Asad, issues to governing an Iraq and Syria that are liberated from the Islamic State, and a comparison between Presidents Trump and Obama and their strategies in Syria and the broader Middle East. None of the panelists envisioned a situation where Asad remained in power and the war settled into relative peace. However, although none of them advised increasing the United States’ presence in Syria to depose Asad, none of them indicated that Iran and Russia’s support for the leader is unconditional.

As the discussion drew to a close, the panelists discussed the possibility of the United States recognizing or agreeing to facilitate the creation of a Kurdish state constituting liberated areas of Iraq and Syria. While they argued the US government should not lead in the call for such an outcome, they expressed that it would be wise to keep a fluid position on the issue of borders because of the chaotic security and governance situation that would commence upon the destruction of ISIL, which may require creative solutions to stabilize the region.

New America: On April 12, New America Foundation held a discussion with two leaders of the Omran Center of Strategic Studies (OCSS). Co-founders Ammar Kahf and M. Yaser Tabbara joined New America’s Robert McKenzie to talk about “Building Blocks Towards Peace in Syria.” Both speakers, who are Syrian-Americans, spoke about OCSS as an organization run by Syrians for Syrians; they emphasized their efforts to empower local actors.

For the purposes of this event, each of the speakers gave a brief presentation of one of OCSS’s recent reports that details the requirements to inch toward a political solution of the Syrian crisis and maintain long-term peace in the country. Kahf detailed a report on the security sector governance in Syria, which OCSS offered as a pragmatic approach for ushering in appropriate changes in the existing security apparatus. Kahf illustrated that, currently, the security services make up a web of entities that fall under five departments and are ultimately under Bashar al-Asad’s control. These numerous groups often spy on one another and compete for power, loyalty, and prestige. This competition has fractured the security services and rendered them ineffective in stabilizing and protecting the citizens of Syria. The OCSS experts proposed a plan for consolidating security agencies into a single agency. Additionally, they said that reform should be pursued through legislative efforts, local and international actors should invest in the development of security institutions, and a comprehensive strategy for addressing security concerns should be settled.

Mr. Tabbara then spoke about a report that details the roles of what he called Local Administration Councils (LACs). Based on survey results and research, OCSS determined that over 400 LACs exist throughout fractured Syria and each one serves its local communities to varying degrees. LACs in Syria are generally split between four major actors and strategies: opposition forces that generally experiment with democratic rule, regime forces that operate through state institutions, armed groups that are brutal and rule through military apparatuses, and Kurdish actors that tend to be loosely governed and play a polarizing role. Regardless of the actor, LACs attempt to deliver services, provide security and law enforcement, and stabilize areas of control.

Tabbara detailed three basic positions most LACs hold: support for the opposition’s representatives in the Geneva negotiations, belief that Assad is a barrier to peace, and desire for unified governance of Syria with decentralized administrative duties. With this in mind, the scholars at OCSS proposed that LACs should be actively involved in piecing Syria back together once the conflict ends and communities transition to reconstruction. Until then, the international community should understand the governing abilities of LACs and support those efforts to provide basic services, strengthen efforts for peace, provide security and economic development, and promote the political process.