Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Representatives Sarbanes and Pallone Express Opposition to Turkey F-16 Sale. On January 17, Representative John Sarbanes (D-Maryland) expressed opposition to the Biden administration’s potential sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. Representative Sarbanes said that the United States “should not reward, accommodate or seek to cajole the Erdoğan regime, given its ongoing demonstration of contempt for international standards, human rights and the sovereignty of nations.” On January 18, Representative Frank Pallone Jr. (D- New Jersey) called for congressional action to block the sale, citing Erdoğan’s human rights abuses and aggressive foreign policy. Representative Pallone said that he plans to work with Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), who has promised to block the $20 billion sale. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed opposition to US fighter jet sales to Turkey in the past.

Senator Rosen Asks Not to Meet with Far-Right Israeli Parties During Visit. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada), who co-chairs the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus, reportedly asked not to meet with any far-right Israeli politicians during a bipartisan Abraham Accords Caucus trip to Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. Senator Rosen reportedly asked officials to avoid meetings with members of Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid responded to the news of Senator Rosen’s request, saying, “The United States is no longer Israel’s closest ally.”

Representatives Tlaib and McCollum Condemn Construction of US Embassy in Jerusalem on Palestinian-Owned Land. On January 17, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) said that she was “outraged” over State Department plans to build the US Embassy in Jerusalem on stolen Palestinian land and called on President Biden to reverse the policy immediately. Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) criticized the plan as well, tweeting a quote from Palestinian American historian Rashid Khalidi’s New York Times op-ed, which states, “The Biden administration should reject building on seized land, showing that the United States won’t tolerate, let alone be complicit in, the theft of any more Palestinian property.” On January 20, Representative Ritchie Torres (D-New York) reportedly responded to his fellow Democrats, tweeting in support of the State Department’s decision “to build an embassy where it belongs, in a country’s capital.”

US-Lebanon Friendship Caucus Leadership Calls for Political Accountability in Lebanon. On January 13, Representatives Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan), Darrell Issa (R-California), and Darin LaHood (R-Illinois), Co-Chairs of the Congressional US-Lebanon Friendship Caucus, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen urging the Biden administration to address the presidential vacuum in Lebanon. In the letter, the representatives called on the administration to use “additional diplomatic tools to hold responsible those who are continuing to obstruct democratic processes in Lebanon,” and urged the Biden administration to make its expectations clear to the international community.

Incoming House Republican Committee Members Hold Strong Pro-Israel Views. On January 17, the Republican Steering Committee announced committee assignments for the House Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, Armed Services, and Judiciary Committees. Many incoming committee members have previously expressed pro-Israel views, including Representative John James (R-Michigan), who expressed support for the annexation of the West Bank, and Representative French Hill (R-Arkansas), who supported the Israel Relations Normalization Act of 2021.

Senator Brown and Representative Carey Seek Immigration Relief for Mauritanians. On January 18, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Representative Mike Carey (R-Ohio) sent a letter to President Biden and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas requesting that US-based Mauritanians be included in the department’s Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) programs due to the risk of slavery in Mauritania. TPS protects refugees who cannot safely return to their home countries, and a DED designation from President Biden would ban the repatriation of US-based Mauritanians to Mauritania. The lawmakers argued that such an action would protect 8,000 US-based Mauritanians and send a clear message that the United States condemns slavery.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

National Security Advisor Sullivan Travels to Israel and Palestine, Discusses Saudi-Israeli Normalization. From January 18–20, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan traveled to Israel and the West Bank, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his cabinet, as well as with Bahrain’s and the UAE’s national security advisors. In his meeting with Netanyahu, Sullivan discussed recent Israeli provocations at Jerusalem’s holy sites and encouraged Israel to maintain the historic status quo. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office also said that he and Sullivan discussed the expansion of the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia. Sullivan’s visit also coincided with the temporary cancelation of settlement expansions in occupied East Jerusalem, following reported US pressure. Sullivan traveled to Ramallah as well, where he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss de-escalation in the occupied West Bank and steps to improve the lives of Palestinians. President Abbas reportedly urged US intervention following recent rhetorical escalations from the new far-right Israeli government. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also set to travel to Israel later this month.

Biden Administration Commemorates One-Year Anniversary of Attack on Abu Dhabi. On January 17, President Biden commemorated the one-year anniversary of a Houthi drone strike in the United Arab Emirates that killed three people. In his statement, President Biden reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to the UAE’s defense and the close friendship between himself and Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ). President Biden also vowed to end the war in Yemen and to provide security to the Emirates and other regional allies. Later that day, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with MBZ to commemorate the attack. Vice President Harris reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to its bilateral relationship with the UAE and the two leaders discussed their partnership to address climate change and invest in clean energy as the UAE prepares to host the COP28 climate conference later this year. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla also commemorated the anniversary of the attack.

Biden Administration Officials Meet with Iraqi Prime Minister in Baghdad. On January 16, White House National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security Amos Hochstein met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani in Baghdad. The talks focused on coordination to support Iraqi reforms in energy, infrastructure, and climate, as well as the Iraqi military’s abilities to fight the so-called Islamic State (IS). Two days prior, Prime Minister al-Sudani had called for the indefinite presence of US troops in Iraq, citing their importance to the country’s ongoing fight against IS. There are currently about 2,000 US troops in Iraq, and the prime minister has faced pressure from pro-Iranian militia leaders to reconsider this US presence.

White House National Security Coordinator McGurk Meets with Jordanian FM. On January 16, White House National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk met with Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi. The two leaders discussed US-Jordan relations, US aid to Jordan, and the most recent memorandum of understanding between the two countries. Foreign Minister Safadi reaffirmed the importance of the United States’ support for the two-state solution in Palestine and its clear rejection of unilateral Israeli actions that threaten the status quo at Jerusalem holy sites.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Amid Potential F-16 Sale. On January 18, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met in Washington for the fourth meeting of the US-Turkey Strategic Mechanism. The two leaders discussed a potential F-16 sale to Turkey, the two countries’ support for Ukraine, methods to bolster NATO cooperation, and the civil war in Syria. At remarks before the meeting, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu mentioned the fighter jet sale, saying that his government anticipates its approval.

Ambassador Nides Says Israel Must Enable Palestinian American Travel for Visa Waiver Deal. On January 18, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said that Israel must ensure that Palestinian Americans can freely travel to Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank in order for Israel to qualify for the US visa waiver program, which would allow Israelis to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa. Ambassador Nides reiterated the importance of reciprocity in the visa waiver program, stating, “Reciprocity will mean that Palestinian Americans will be able to freely travel from Detroit to Ben-Gurion to Ramallah. And Americans who live in Ramallah will be able to go from Ramallah to Ben-Gurion back to Detroit.” His comments follow congressional opposition last year to Israel’s entry into the visa waiver program due to its restrictive regulations in the West Bank, which would affect American citizens.

Palestinian Affairs Office Condemns Settler Attack Involving US Citizens near Jericho. On January 17, the State Department’s Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem condemned an Israeli settler attack on Palestinians and others, including US citizens, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank. Days before, Israeli settlers had attacked a group of Palestinian, French, American, and Italian hikers, reportedly threatening to kill them. The US Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem called the act a “brazen assault,” and urged a stop to actions that exacerbate tensions in the area.

Deputy Representative Mills Delivers Speech During UNSC Briefing on Yemen. On January 16, Deputy US Representative to the United Nations Richard Mills spoke at a UN Security Council (UNSC) briefing on the war in Yemen, expressing the United States’ hope for a renewed truce agreement and peace process in 2023. During his speech, Mills criticized the Houthis for their attacks on maritime ports, arguing that they harm Yemen’s economy and raise the cost of living. Mills also criticized Iran for its support of the Houthis amid a relative peace in Yemen, citing last week’s discovery of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles being shipped from Iran to Yemen.

Climate Envoy Kerry Supports UAE Decision to Put Oil Company President in Charge of COP28. On January 15, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry supported the UAE’s decision to appoint the head of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., Sultan al-Jaber, to lead the planning for COP28, the global climate conference set to take place in the UAE next fall. In response to criticism from activists, Kerry justified the decision, stating, “I think that Dr. Sultan al-Jaber is a terrific choice because he is the head of the company. That company knows it needs to transition.”

Secretary Blinken Comments on JCPOA in Joint Press Conference with UK Foreign Secretary. On January 17, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a joint press conference with UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, wherein the two officials discussed partnership and support for assistance to Ukraine, peace for the people of Northern Ireland, and support for demonstrators in Iran. Most notably, Secretary Blinken commented on a potential US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, stating that “Iranians killed the opportunity to come back to that agreement swiftly many months ago.” On January 19, Secretary Blinken again spoke about Iran with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell.

UN Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield Speaks at UNSC Briefing on Israel-Palestine. On January 18, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke at a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) briefing on the new Israeli government. During her speech, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield reiterated the United States’ commitment to the two-state solution, condemned any unliteral actions at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound that would threaten the status quo in Jerusalem, called for the release of two Israelis imprisoned in Gaza, and called on UN member states to bolster financial support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the chief UN aid mechanism to Palestine.

Ambassador Hussain Travels to Mauritania. On January 19, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain traveled to Mauritania to meet with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, political leaders from Nigeria, and the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The leaders discussed human rights, security issues, religious freedom, and efforts at interfaith tolerance.

Secretary Blinken Discusses Ukraine, DRC Peace Efforts with Qatari FM. On January 21, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. The two discussed international cooperation in Ukraine and peace efforts in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as Qatar’s continued support for Afghanistan.

Special Advisor Minkara Travels to Saudi Arabia and Jordan. On January 21, the State Department’s Special Advisor on International Disability Rights Sara Minkara traveled to Saudi Arabia and Jordan to meet with government officials, civil society and business community members, and representatives from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The meetings were set around the advancement of human rights for persons with disabilities.

Assistant Secretary Sison Travels to Algeria and Morocco. On January 21, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Michele Sison traveled to Algeria and Morocco to discuss human rights as the two states prepare to join the United Nations Human Rights Council. Sison will meet with government and civil society leaders and will underscore the importance of the UN-led effort for a political process in Western Sahara.

3) Department of Defense

US Coalition Outpost in Syria Attacked by Drones. On January 20, the al-Tanf Garrison in Syria was attacked by three one-way attack drones. According to US Central Command (CENTCOM), one drone struck the compound, injuring two members of the Syrian Free Army. No US forces were injured in the attack.

US Signs $4.21 Billion F-16 Deal with Jordan. On January 19, Deputy Chief of the US Mission to Jordan Rohit Nepal signed a $4.21 billion F-16 fighter jet deal with Royal Jordanian Air Force Commander Brigadier General Mohammed Hiasat. The State Department had approved the sale in February 2022.

CENTCOM Commander Kurilla Welcomes Iraq’s Repatriation of al-Hol Residents. On January 18, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla commended the Iraqi government’s January 14 repatriation of 580 Iraqis from the al-Hol displaced persons camp in northeastern Syria. General Kurilla stated that al-Hol is a “flashpoint of human suffering and a recruiting opportunity for ISIS,” and argued that repatriation is the best course of action to reduce the camp’s population.

Department of Defense Moving US Artillery from Israel to Ukraine. The Department of Defense has reportedly decided to move a stockpile of American artillery from Israel to Ukraine for the latter’s use in its war against Russia. In the wake of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Israeli government has followed a strict policy of not providing Ukraine with lethal weapons in order to avoid upsetting Russia. But Israeli officials insist that this new weapons transfer is not a change in policy because the ammunition is American. The US ammunition stored in Israel dates to the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and Israel has used the weaponry, with American approval, during both its 2006 war against Hezbollah and its 2014 war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

CENTCOM Partners with SDF to Capture Islamic State Operative. On January 18, US Central Command (CENTCOM) partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to conduct a helicopter assault resulting in the capture of a Syrian provincial media and security operative from the so-called Islamic State (IS). According to a CENTCOM statement, the captured operative was involved with IS operations in the Middle East and elsewhere, and also contributed to global recruiting efforts.

CENTCOM Commander Kurilla Meets with Israeli Army Leadership. On January 18, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla met with the new Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi in Tel Aviv. The two leaders discussed the US-Israel military partnership and upcoming joint training exercises. The same day, General Kurilla met with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant and visited Israeli Air Force headquarters.

CENTCOM Launches Naval Security Exercise with Bahrain. On January 15, US Central Command (CENTCOM) forces launched a 10-day maritime security exercise with Bahrain. The naval exercise consisted of a bilateral training event between the Bahrain Defense Force, Bahrain’s Ministry of the Interior, and 200 US personnel from US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT). The training seeks to enhance cooperation between the Kingdom of Bahrain and the United States.

CENTCOM Marks One-Year Anniversary of IS Attack on Ghuwayran Detention Facility. On January 20, US Central Command (CENTCOM) marked the one-year anniversary of the so-called Islamic State’s (IS) attack on the Ghuwayran detention facility in Hasaka, Syria. The attack on the facility and the ten-day battle that ensued resulted in the deaths of 425 IS militants and of 121 members of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces.

4) Department of Homeland Security

Secretary Mayorkas Extends Temporary Protected Status for Somali Residents. On January 12, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced the extension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Somalia until September 17, 2024. TPS designations are intended to protect refugees in the United States who cannot safely return to their home countries due to ongoing conflict, and this announcement will extend the protections for 430 current TPS holders and allow an additional 2,200 Somali residents of the United States to apply for the status. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), who is herself a Somali refugee, called for the TPS redesignation in December and then praised last week’s decision.

III. Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Considers Turkish Bank’s Iranian Sanctions Evasion Case. On January 17, the Supreme Court considered the case of Turkish state-owned lender Halkbank, which has been charged for allegedly helping Iran evade US sanctions. The Turkish bank is claiming sovereign immunity for protection against the lawsuit, and the justices are reportedly weighing in on whether the bank’s ties to Turkey would allow for future litigation against foreign states. Foreign governments have sovereign immunity in US courts under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Halkbank was originally charged in 2019, and US prosecutors accuse the bank of helping Iran to launder at least $1 billion through the US financial system.