Congressional Update – Week Ending February 9, 2018

I. Congress

Congress failed to fund the government, again, on Thursday, February 8. The “shutdown” was short-lived, however, with both chambers passing a funding bill before sunrise and President Donald Trump signing it into law early Friday morning. The budget deal includes government funding until late March and it raises the caps on how much Congress can spend for the next two years. The big winner? Defense hawks. They see the Department of Defense’s budget caps raised by over $80 billion each year for the next two years.

1) Legislation

H.R. 2646. On February 5, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved, as amended and via voice vote, a bill known as the United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Extension Act. This bill will reauthorize a previous three-year defense cooperation law that provides key defense and security cooperation between the United States and one of its top Arab allies. In addition to helping Jordan maintain domestic stability, protect its borders, and fight the so-called Islamic State (IS), the House’s reauthorization bill also establishes a “Jordan Enterprise Fund” intended to attract private investment to the Jordanian economy and assist small businesses and entrepreneurs in their endeavors. This enterprise fund would be operated like those created for Egypt and Tunisia. The bill was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) for consideration.

H. Res. 728. On February 7, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced a resolution in support of Israel, this time in condemnation of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Wilson’s resolution condemns the body for “wasteful and abusive actions”; this reflects the general sense of many members of Congress that Israel is unfairly criticized in the UN Human Rights Council. The resolution was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) for consideration. This resolution was countered by a recent letter—signed by 102 representatives—urging President Trump to maintain funding to another UN body, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is often targeted by the pro-Israel faction.

2) Hearings

The National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review. On February 6, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) gathered to hear testimony from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva. The two were summoned to apprise the committee about the new defense strategy and results of the nuclear posture review that the Department of Defense has completed. While most of the hearing was a traditional “oversight” hearing in which the lawmakers on one side and executive officials on the other sparred over issues like funding, Secretary Mattis said something that was interesting: for what seems like the first time, a senior Trump Administration official stated that Iran and terrorism were not the greatest threats to the United States. While both Mattis and Selva asserted these are still top-level threats, Mattis specifically noted that the single greatest threat facing the United States is the “great power” competition between the United States and “revisionist” powers Russia and China. Much of the rest of the hearing was a pillorying of Congress by Secretary Mattis for its failure to secure stable, predictable funding for the government. This problem, Mattis reiterated multiple times, undermines the preparedness of the armed forces and impedes their ability to carry out missions and support allies in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Syria: Which Way Forward? On February 6, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing to discuss the future of Syria and the United States’ role in rebuilding the country. The panel was intended to provide the noticeably absent specifics of how to meet the objectives outlined in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent address about the future of Syria. This panel of experts was tasked with crafting ways to realize some of Tillerson’s biggest goals—including the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes and elimination of weapons of mass destruction—as the United States faces some of its biggest challenges regarding Iran’s increased influence in the country, Turkey’s military operation in US-backed Kurdish territory, and Russia’s total hijacking of internationally sanctioned peace processes.

To discuss these issues, the committee called on Middle East Institute scholars Robert Ford and Charles Lister, Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council, and Dr. Mara Karlin of Johns Hopkins University. This hearing was marked by the familiar partisan “blame game,” with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), chair of the subcommittee, laying the current state of Syria at the feet of former President Obama. Nevertheless, members and panelists alike were eager to see Tillerson’s strategy accomplished.

The panelists, however, were pessimistic about the feasibility of the secretary’s goals. They agreed that the strategy is unrealistic when one considers the political climate in Syria and the limited resources available for the United States to do the heavy lifting. Furthermore, the witnesses noted, Bashar al-Assad is in no way inclined to voluntarily give up his power through either elections or negotiations. Ford, Itani, and Lister took time to outline similar policy recommendations for the committee, including continuing the stabilization and reconstruction efforts in areas under US or its allies’ control and supporting local level counterterrorism efforts.

These three witnesses had different recommendations for the US posture toward other states’ participation in Syria, however. Ford suggested that Congress reconsider US financial assistance to the UN humanitarian programs in Syria that, he argued, are subsidizing the Assad regime. Itani, on the other hand, focused on US-Turkey relations, positing that it is in the country’s best interest to repair the relationship with Turkey, primarily by defusing the Kurdish conflict in northeastern Syria. Lister pointed to another regional actor, emphasizing Iran’s presence in Syria. To him, the most important goal for the United States is to preemptively limit Iran’s abilities to threaten Israel or exert influence over Jordan.

For her part, Karlin outlined questions for policy-makers to consider: Does US policy toward Syria prioritize counterterrorism or larger geopolitical affairs? What are the US military’s goals in Syria, and are they being communicated to the other regional actors? And lastly, what is the nature of the United States’ military relationship with non-state actors in Syria and what is the government’s level of commitment to these groups? Until these questions and others are answered, she said, policymakers will not have clearer objectives for the US role in Syria.

3) Correspondence and Personnel

Senators Write to Trump Urging New Iran Sanctions. Fourteen GOP senators wrote to President Trump this week calling on the administration to levy more sanctions on Iranian entities and foreign actors that have stakes or roles in Iran’s ballistic missile program. The letter notes that Iran has the largest ballistic missile stockpile in the Middle East and the senators worry about Iran’s progress toward creating even more advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles. To deter Iran’s pursuit of this weaponry, the 14 senators called on President Trump to target any and every sector of the Iranian economy that supports the ballistic missile programs.

Sen. Menendez Reclaims Leadership Position on SFRC. Democrats announced this week that Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) would reclaim his ranking member spot on the SFRC following the government’s decision to drop criminal charges against him. Menendez will replace Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), who held the top Democratic spot on the committee for most of the last three years after Menendez agreed to step down from the post when he was indicted on corruption charges. Now cleared of any criminal behavior, Menendez will likely bring back his freewheeling style to foreign affairs. He is ardently pro-Israel and anti-Iran and he is not shy about breaking with his party and supporting the more hawkish elements of the Senate. However, with Senate Democrats seeking any way to hold the Trump Administration accountable for what many deem a disoriented foreign policy approach, Menendez will likely stay in line with Democratic ideals in an effort to challenge the Trump Administration.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

McMaster, Tillerson to Address Middle East Issues Abroad. The White House and State Department confirmed this week that top administration officials will travel abroad, starting this weekend, to discuss recent developments in the Middle East. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster will first head to Ankara, Turkey to speak with Turkish officials about the latest developments in Syria. Tensions between the United States and Turkey have been on the rise in recent weeks due to US support for Syrian Kurds and Turkey’s recent attacks on a US-backed Kurdish stronghold in Afrin province near the Turkish border. After visiting Turkey, McMaster is expected to fly to Munich, Germany for an international security conference that will explore, among other issues, ways to resolve ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

Tillerson is expected in Turkey after McMaster, but Turkey is only one stop of a broader Middle East tour for the nation’s top diplomat. Aside from Ankara, Tillerson will travel to Egypt to follow up on Vice President Mike Pence’s visit last month. Tillerson will also fly to Kuwait to attend two conferences about rebuilding Iraq post-IS. In the Levant, Tillerson will visit Amman where he is expected to speak at length with Jordan’s King Abdullah II about increased US-Jordanian cooperation in the wake of recent developments on H.R. 2646 (see above). He is also expected to sign a five-year memorandum of understanding with Jordan’s monarch for US aid and assistance. Finally, Tillerson is slated to become the first Trump cabinet member to visit Beirut, Lebanon, the first such official visit since then-Secretary of State John Kerry went to the country in 2014.

2) Executive Agencies

Nikki Haley Critical of Russia at UNSC. At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in the wake of another reported chemical attack in Syria, US Ambassador Nikki Haley took her Russian counterpart to task for what she said is Russia’s enabling of the Assad regime’s chemical attacks. Following the chemical attack in Idlib province, UN investigators stated that they believed Syrian civilians were, in fact, subjected to chemical weapons, and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible. Russia has consistently disputed findings by the UN watchdog, however, and has wielded its veto power to protect the Syrian ruler from punitive measures. At this meeting, Russia effectively prevented the UNSC from issuing a statement of condemnation of the Assad regime, drawing the ire of Ambassador Haley.

Officials from State, Defense, and USAID Discuss Raqqa. On February 5, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held an event titled Stabilizing Raqqa: Connecting Current Operations to US Policy Objectives. CSIS brought together a panel of US government officials to explain their respective agencies’ efforts in securing and stabilizing newly liberated areas like Raqqa and to explore how current efforts might be tied to broader US policy concerns in Syria. The main policy takeaway from the event came from the Department of Defense’s Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Stability and Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Swayne. Swayne said that the Trump Administration is preparing a proposal to ask Congress to establish a stabilization fund for Syria, most likely focused on areas recently liberated from IS rule like Raqqa and other parts of northeastern Syria. The proposal, according to Swayne, is pending approval by the White House Budget Office. The possible stabilization fund aside, Swayne said the Department of Defense allocated roughly $15 million in humanitarian assistance in 2017. Moving forward, Secretary of Defense Mattis has authorized another $5 million to continue stabilization efforts in the liberated areas of Syria.

Amb. David Satterfield Tries to Calm Tensions Between Israel, Lebanon. This week it was reported that Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield visited Beirut in an effort to ease tensions between Lebanon and Israel. Satterfield apparently relayed a message from Israeli officials to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, assuring the Lebanese that a border wall being built by Israel is in Israeli territory only. The border wall dispute only compounds territorial tensions that include a long-lasting maritime dispute between the two countries.