Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

House Overwhelmingly Passes Resolution Expressing Support for Turkey and Syria. On February 27, the House voted 414-2, with 17 members abstaining, to pass H.Res.132, a resolution expressing condolences to the people of Turkey and Syria following the February 6 earthquake. The resolution, which was introduced by Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), also condemns the Assad regime for efforts to “exploit the disaster to evade international pressure and accountability,” and calls on the Biden administration to remain committed to the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) were the lone members who voted against the near-unanimous bipartisan resolution.

Representative Bergman Introduces Bill Targeting Al Jazeera’s Capitol Hill Press Credentials. On March 1, Representative Jack Berman (R-MI) introduced H.Res.189, a resolution aiming to prevent state-sponsored media outlets from obtaining press credentials for Capitol Hill access, unless they comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In a statement following his introduction of the resolution, Representative Berman painted Al Jazeera as “Qatar’s propaganda arm,” and called for the removal of its 136 press credentials. The legislation targets state-sponsored media from Russia and China as well, and follows Representative Berman’s January 31 letter to House leadership requesting the suspension of Al Jazeera’s media credentials.

Representatives Torres and Lawler Introduce Bill to Establish Abraham Accords Envoy. On February 28, Representatives Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Mike Lawler (R-NY) introduced H.R. 1268, the Special Envoy for the Abraham Accords Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would establish a State Department special envoy for the Abraham Accords to coordinate US government efforts to expand and strengthen the accords.

Representative Pfluger Introduces Bill to Train Israeli Pilots to Defend Against Iran. On February 27, Representative August Pfluger (R-TX) introduced H.R.1218, the Expediting Israeli Aerial Refueling Act of 2023. The bill, which follows companion Senate legislation from Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) two weeks ago, would direct the US Air Force to train Israeli pilots in the operation and maintenance of US KC-46 refueling aircraft before Israel receives them in 2025, and aims to expedite Israel’s ability to supposedly defend itself against Iran.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Top Republicans Warn About Assad Normalization Post-Earthquake. On February 28, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX) released a statement following a House vote to pass H.Res.132 in support of Turkey and Syria, expressing concern that countries are making diplomatic overtures to the Assad regime following the earthquake. He also called for the United States to “narrow the sanctions exemptions” on earthquake relief and enforce the Caesar Act to disallow a Lebanon-Syria energy deal that would benefit the Assad regime. Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) expressed similar concerns following Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s recent trip to Damascus, warning that “outreach to Assad will not benefit our Arab partners and will only open the door to potential US sanctions.”

Representative Omar Condemns West Bank Violence, Settler Rampage in Huwwara. On February 27, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) condemned a recent Israeli settler rampage in the town of Huwwara in the occupied West Bank that resulted in one Palestinian death, more than 100 injured, and significant property damage. Representative Omar argued that settler violence and Israel’s settlement expansion “erase any hope for a two-state solution,” and called on the US government to push for full accountability for any violations of international law and to ensure that US funding does not go toward human rights violations.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Call for Sanctions on 227 Members of Iran’s Parliament. On March 1, Representatives Claudia Tenney (R-NY) and Katie Porter (D-CA) and Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) led a group of bipartisan lawmakers in sending a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, calling on the Biden administration to sanction 227 members of the Iranian Parliament. The letter targets Iranian MPs who signed a November 2022 open statement calling on Iran’s judiciary to “show no leniency” toward protesters, and comparing them to terrorists belonging to the so-called Islamic State (IS). The lawmakers asked the Biden administration to model the sanctions after the March 2022 US sanctions against 339 members of the Russian Parliament over their support for the invasion of Ukraine.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Call on UN to Remove Albanese for a Second Time. On February 24, Representatives Brad Schneider (D-IL) and Ann Wagner (R-MO) led a group of 18 bipartisan House members in sending a letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk requesting the removal of Francesca Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. The letter, which follows a January 23 letter demanding Albanese’s removal over accusations of antisemitism, mentions Albanese’s refusal to condemn recent Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem and her praise of the mayor of Barcelona’s decision to cut ties with Tel Aviv, its “sister city.” The new letter also calls for the disbanding of the UN Commission of Inquiry into Israel, accusing the United Nations of anti-Israel bias.

House Armed Services Committee Members Call for Expanded US-Israel Defense Cooperation. On February 27, Representatives Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and Jason Crow (D-CO) led 47 bipartisan representatives of the House Armed Services Committee in sending a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III calling for increased US-Israel defense cooperation. In the letter, the representatives cite evolving threats to Israel, including Russia-Iran defense cooperation and Iran’s increasing use of proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and request that the Department of Defense report to the committee regarding security threats to Israel, Israel’s defense capabilities, and areas for increased US-Israel defense collaboration.

Representative McCaul Calls on State Department to Seek Finding of Iranian Non-Compliance. On March 1, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the United States to pursue a formal finding of Iran’s non-compliance with its Non-Proliferation Treaty-required Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. Representative McCaul urged the State Department to report findings of non-compliance at the upcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting, and argued that the “credibility of the global non-proliferation system depends on the IAEA’s ability to successfully carry out its mandate of verifying the full scope of Iran’s nuclear activities.”

Senator Welch Expresses Concern Over Situation in West Bank After Trip to Israel. On February 28, Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) expressed concern about escalating violence in the West Bank and the imperiled prospects of a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. Senator Welch traveled to Israel with a group of Democratic lawmakers, whose arrival in Jerusalem coincided with both escalating violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and mass protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul. Following his visit, Senator Welch stated that he is “not optimistic right now” about political tensions in the region. On March 2, Senator Welch reportedly handed President Biden a letter during the president’s visit to the Senate, which stated, “it is time to acknowledge what is painfully apparent: as far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, the two-state solution is dead.” A Democratic congressional letter urging President Biden to address the far-right Israeli government is also reportedly being released next week.

Representative Santos Calls on Biden Administration to Abandon the JCPOA. On March 1, Representative George Santos (R-NY) spoke on the House floor condemning recent reports that Iranian schoolgirls are being poisoned in gas attacks and criticizing the Biden administration for its stance on Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Representative Santos called on the administration to “publicly disavow the prospect of a new nuclear deal with Iran.”

Representative Meeks Condemns Tunisian Political Crackdown, Anti-Migrant Sentiment. On March 3, Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-NY) condemned the recent political crackdown in Tunisia, including Tunisian President Kais Saied’s recent racist attacks on migrants in Tunisia who come from other African countries. Representative Meeks called on the Tunisian president to cease his anti-immigrant incitement and respect basic rights.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Pentagon Defends JCPOA to House Armed Services Committee, Warns of Iranian Nuclear Bomb. On February 28, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on US Military Support for Ukraine, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl defended the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and warned lawmakers that Iran has enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb in about 12 days. After a Republican representative pressed Kahl on the Biden administration’s continued pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, he defended the administration, stating that prior to the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA, it would have taken Iran 12 months to produce the material for a bomb. Under Secretary Kahl acknowledged that the JCPOA is currently “on ice,” but argued that a diplomatic solution to the issue is still a good option.

House Appropriations Lawmakers Press Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield on UNRWA, Israel. On March 1, the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs held a hearing on UN oversight, wherein representatives pressed US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield on US funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main international aid vessel for Palestinian refugees, and on the United Nations’ scrutiny of Israel. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield defended UNRWA funding to Representative Jake LaTurner (R-KS), arguing that the US government ensures that UNRWA facilities and materials do not support terrorism. Chairman and Ranking Member of the subcommittee Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) both spoke about perceived UN bias toward Israel, and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said that the United States must remain on the UN Human Rights Council, which the Trump administration left and the Biden administration subsequently rejoined, in order to prevent “unlimited” investigations into Israel. Finally, the ambassador detailed the importance of US campaigns at the United Nations for human rights in Iran.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

Top White House MENA Official Speaks with Tunisian Prime Minister. On March 2, White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk spoke with Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Bouden to discuss the US-Tunisia relationship. While the two did not explicitly discuss the deteriorating political situation in Tunisia, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price expressed concern later that day about the Tunisian government’s targeting of individuals who have met with US embassy staff in Tunis.

2) Department of State

State Department Condemns West Bank Violence in Huwwara. On February 27, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price condemned the Israeli settler rampage in Huwwara in the occupied West Bank that took place the previous night, when Israeli settlers responded to a Palestinian’s shooting of two Israelis, one a US citizen, by going on a violent rampage that resulted in the burning of homes, the killing of one Palestinian, and the wounding of more than 100. Responding to the settler rampage, Price said that the United States wants to “see full accountability and legal prosecution for those responsible for these attacks and for compensation for those who lost property or were otherwise affected.” US Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr visited Huwwara the next day, expressing condolences to the Palestinian victims of the settler attack.

State Department Condemns Israeli Minister Smotrich’s Call to “Erase” Huwwara. On March 1, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price responded to Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s statement that the Palestinian village of Huwwara “needs to be erased.” Price condemned Smotrich’s comments as “irresponsible,” “repugnant,” and “disgusting,” and accused Smotrich of inciting violence. US-based Jewish groups criticized Smotrich as well, calling on the Biden administration to revoke his US visa or bar him from meeting with US officials. On March 2, a White House official said that US government officials will not be meeting with Smotrich when he comes to the United States later in March. On March 2, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) condemned Smotrich’s comments as “disgusting rhetoric,” arguing that the right-wing government in Israel is “creating the conditions for more violence and undermining democracy.”

State Department Announces $444 Million in Additional Aid to Yemen. On February 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced $444 million in humanitarian aid for Yemen through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). Secretary Blinken cited the package as evidence of the continued US commitment to “alleviating the suffering of millions” amid Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Secretary Blinken also urged all other donors to help reach the $4.3 billion UN funding target, which is needed to provide humanitarian assistance to Yemen, including food assistance and economic support.

State Department Issues 2021 Country Reports on Terrorism. On February 27, the State Department released the 2021 Country Reports on Terrorism (CRT). The reports detail US efforts against the so-called Islamic State (IS), Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Shabab, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin. Notably, the report states that Israeli forces did not adequately protect Palestinians from Israeli settler violence in 2021.

Under Secretary Zeya Travels to Jordan and Oman, Raises Concern About Syrian Refugees. On February 25, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya traveled to Amman, Jordan to meet with civil society and government officials. Under Secretary Zeya’s trip follows mounting pressure from Turkey and Lebanon to forcibly return Syrian refugees to Syria. After her meeting with UN officials in Amman, Under Secretary Zeya commended Jordan for its “generosity and protection” toward Syrian refugees and told reporters that the United States is against the “forcible return of refugees to an environment where they face danger or peril.” Under Secretary Zeya also travelled to Muscat, Oman on February 28 to discuss the US-Omani partnership on humanitarian support and efforts to counter human trafficking.

US and Partners Discuss Somali Security. On February 28, Representatives of the United States, Qatar, Somalia, Turkey, the UAE, and the United Kingdom met in Washington to discuss state-building, security, and humanitarian challenges in Somalia. The United States and its partners encouraged the efforts of Somalia’s National Consultative Council to finalize the country’s constitution and delineate the roles of different levels of government in Somalia. The partners also expressed support for the Somali government’s counterterrorism efforts against al-Shabab and agreed to continue to work both within the areas of state-building and security and at a meeting in Doha, Qatar.

State Department Offers Reward for Information on al-Shabab Leader. On February 28, the State Department offered a $5 million reward for information on the identity and whereabouts of Ali Mohamed Rage, the spokesperson of al-Shabab. Rage has been involved in planning al-Shabab attacks in Kenya and Somalia.

State Department Welcomes Saudi Foreign Minister’s Visit to Ukraine. On February 27, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price welcomed Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud’s visit to Kyiv, Ukraine. Spokesperson Price also applauded Saudi Arabia’s provision of $400 million in energy and assistance to Ukraine, citing the aid package as a “significant step forward at a critical time for Ukraine.”

State Department Issues Sanctions Targeting Iranian Petroleum and Petrochemical Trade. On March 2, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced sanctions designations on six entities and 20 vessels that have engaged in the transport or sale of Iranian petroleum and petrochemical products. The entities and their affiliated vessels are based in Vietnam, China, the UAE, and Iran.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Welcomes Iraq’s Repatriation of Residents of Syria’s al-Hol Camp. On February 27, US Central Command (CENTCOM) said that Iraqi authorities recently repatriated more than 500 residents of Syria’s al-Hol displacement camp, which houses relatives of suspected members of the so-called Islamic State (IS). CENCTOM confirmed that on February 26, 582 people were transferred by Iraqi authorities to the Jeddah-I camp, a rehabilitation center for individuals returning from Syria. CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla commended Iraqi officials for their “constructive and courageous role in this repatriation” and expressed that the repatriation is a critical development for the “enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Secretary Austin to Travel to the Middle East. On February 28, the Pentagon announced that Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III will travel to the Middle East in the first week of March to meet with the United States’ strategic partners. Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder stated that Secretary Austin’s trip seeks to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to air defense and combined naval task forces in the Middle East, although the itinerary for the trip has yet to be announced.

CENTCOM Praises UK Navy’s Seizure of Iranian Weapons Bound for Yemen. On March 2, CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla called UK Lieutenant General Charlie Strickland to commend the Royal Navy’s seizure of Iranian missiles heading to Yemen. The British Navy, in coordination with US forces, seized anti-tank missiles and fins for ballistic missiles in the Gulf of Oman on February 23.

Top US General Travels to Israel and Syria Ahead of Secretary Austin’s Trip. On March 3, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley traveled to Israel to discuss preventing Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities through US-Israel defense cooperation. Following his trip to Israel, General Milley made a surprise visit to northeastern Syria, where he met with the commander of the US-led coalition to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS), Major General Matthew McFarlane. The visit to Syria, where 900 US troops remain to combat IS, coincides with recent congressional pressure to remove US troops from Syria.