Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

I) Legislation

Senate Begins Voting on Iraq AUMF Amendments. On March 22, the Senate continued its debate and voting on S. 316, Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young’s (R-IN) bill to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) in Iraq. The Senate began debate and voting on dozens of amendments that senators from both parties have introduced to the original bill. The Senate voted 86 to 9, with 5 not voting, to reject Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) amendment to also appeal the 2001 AUMF that was passed after 9/11. The Senate also voted 60 to 36, with 4 not voting, to reject Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) amendment to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF and replace it with a new AUMF targeting Iran-backed Shia militias that operate in Iraq. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on March 22, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) that the 2001 AUMF, which some senators have targeted, is still being used by the Biden administration. On March 23, the Senate rejected three more amendments to the bill, which aimed to modify both present and future AUMFs. As the Senate advances debate on the bill, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX) have reportedly begun private deliberation on how House Republicans plan to respond.

Representative Wilson Introduces US-Israel Future of Warfare Act. On March 24, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced H.R.1777, the United States-Israel Future of Warfare Act of 2023. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would establish an annual $50 million fund for US-Israel defense collaboration in the area of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, for Fiscal Years 2024 through 2028.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

SFRC, HFAC Leaders Call for Sanctions Against Syrian Military Official Involved in 2013 Tadamon Massacre. On March 23, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) chair and ranking member, Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID), and House Foreign Affairs Committee chair and ranking member, Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY), sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen calling for Caesar Act sanctions on Amjad Yousef, a Syrian military official who murdered 41 unarmed civilians in the 2013 Tadamon massacre. In the letter, the lawmakers expressed their disappointment about the Biden administration’s “slow pace of sanctions” under the Caesar Act, which was signed into law in 2019, and pressed the administration to use it against Yousef. The State Department announced a visa ban on Yousef on March 6.

Senator Risch Condemns Assad’s Visit to the UAE. On March 20, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the latest step in the Syrian regime’s normalization with other Arab states. Senator Risch responded negatively, stating “Assad’s red carpet reception in Abu Dhabi this weekend is an affront to the victims of Assad’s atrocities in Syria.” Senator Risch has led Republicans in warnings about Assad’s normalization efforts following the February 6 earthquake in Syria.

Republican Senators Call on EU To Designate IRGC as a Terrorist Organization. On March 23, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) led Republican senators in sending a letter to EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, calling on the EU to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. In the letter, the senators argue that IRGC support for Russia in its war in Ukraine is only its latest aggression toward Europe, and state that a terrorist designation would cut off the Iranian militia’s access to EU markets. The United States designated the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2019 under the Trump administration.

SFRC Democrats Commend Biden Administration on Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh Meetings. On March 21, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Bob Menendez (D-NJ) led the committee’s Democratic members in welcoming meetings between the United States, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan in Aqaba, Jordan, and in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The Democrats welcomed the parties’ commitments to end unilateral escalatory measures and to de-escalate recent tensions, commending the Biden administration on its “diplomatic role in this process, which underscores the unique leadership the United States provides on issues of regional importance.”

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Appropriations Committee Holds FY24 State Department Budget Hearing. On March 22, the Senate Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs held its Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) State Department Budget Request Hearing, featuring testimony from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. During the hearing, Secretary Blinken told Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) that the department is “actively working” on reestablishing a US diplomatic presence in Libya and reopening the US embassy there. Senator Murphy also pressed Secretary Blinken on the political situation in Tunisia, commenting on the maintenance of US security assistance to the country in the FY24 budget, arguing that Tunisian President Kais Saied has made his decision to move away from democracy and that “our policy should reflect that.” Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) pressed Secretary Blinken on the Israeli Knesset’s repeal of the country’s 2005 Disengagement Law and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s denial of a halt to Israeli settlement expansion following US-brokered meetings in Aqaba, Jordan, telling Blinken, “We look very weak,” and pressing the secretary on the Biden administration’s plans to address the far-right Netanyahu government.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Holds FY24 State Department Budget Hearing. On March 22, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held its Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) State Department Budget Request Hearing, featuring testimony from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. During his opening remarks in the hearing, the committee’s ranking member, Jim Risch (R-ID), said that the Biden administration is “failing to compete with China” in the Middle East, and referenced the recent China-brokered Saudi-Iran rapprochement in this regard. Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) pressed Secretary Blinken on the issue, and he responded that the deal had both positives and negatives, stating that it could potentially help reduce Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen and ultimately end the war. On a US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Secretary Blinken told senators that, “As a practical matter, the JCPOA is not on the table at this moment.” Senators from both parties also pressed Blinken on the growing Russia-Iran security relationship. Chairman of the Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) closed the hearing with a speech on Turkey, telling Secretary Blinken that Turkey does not deserve to obtain F-16 fighter jets.

House Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing on Middle East Security Challenges. On March 23, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on US military posture and national security in the Middle East and Africa. During the hearing, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla told lawmakers that the mass protests in Iran that have been occurring since September 2022 have not significantly “put the [Iranian] regime at risk.” Both General Kurilla and Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander reportedly told lawmakers that the key US goal in the Middle East is countering Iran’s proliferation of drones and missiles through regional defense partnerships. Kurilla reportedly told committee members that repealing the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq would not affect any CENTCOM operations.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

White House Calls for Urgent Compromise in Israeli Judicial Reform Battle. On March 26, White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said that the White House is “deeply concerned” by developments that occurred in Israel that day, namely Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to fire defense minister, Yoav Gallant, after the latter came out against controversial judicial reforms. In the statement, Watson said that, “Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” and urged Israeli leaders to work toward compromise. The statement follows President Biden’s phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu last week.

Biden Administration Welcomes Prisoner Swap in Yemen. On March 20, White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson and State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel welcomed a UN- and International Committee of the Red Cross-brokered prisoner swap in Yemen. Under the deal, which is the culmination of peace negotiations in Switzerland between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and the Houthis, the Houthis will release more than 180 prisoners from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, in exchange for the release of over 700 Houthi prisoners.

2) Department of State

State Department Condemns Israeli Repeal of Disengagement Law, Summons Israeli Ambassador. On March 21, State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel said that the department was “extremely troubled” by the Israeli Knesset’s repeal of Israel’s 2005 Disengagement Law, which evacuated four settlements in the northern West Bank and banned Israeli citizens from returning to the locations. Patel called the legislative repeal “a clear contradiction” to Israeli commitments to the United States under the Bush administration in 2005, and also said that the changes were “provocative and counterproductive” given recent tensions. The same day, the State Department summoned Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog, who met with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to discuss US concern over the legislative repeal. The repeal comes two days after the US-brokered Sharm el-Sheikh Communique, in which Israeli officials reportedly agreed to halt settlement expansion for four months.

Assistant Secretary Leaf Condemns Tunisian President, Promotes Elections in Libya. On March 23, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said that Tunisian President Kais Saied’s actions in Tunisia have caused “enormous concern,” stating that his government has been “taking Tunisia in a very different direction,” over the past year and a half. Assistant Secretary Leaf said that President Saied’s recent actions “have weakened foundational principles of checks and balances,” and condemned the president’s recent remarks about the judiciary and the “tidal wave of racist rhetoric” that has resulted from his comments on migrants in Tunisia. During the same interview, Leaf also expressed optimism about the possibility of elections in Libya this year.

Secretary Blinken Condemns Israeli Finance Minister’s Comments. On March 22, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on the State Department’s budget request, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s statement during a speech in Paris earlier in the week, in which he said, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language.” In response to questioning from Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Secretary Blinken said that Smotrich’s recent comments, including his previous call to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwwara, are inconsistent with US values.

US Citizen Released from Jail in Saudi Arabia. On March 21, Saudi Arabia released Saad Ibrahim Almadi, a 72-year-old Saudi American dual citizen who was arrested in November 2021 during a two-week visit to see his family. In October 2022, Almadi was sentenced on terrorism charges over tweets that were critical of Saudi intervention in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. While he has been released from prison, Almadi remains stuck in Saudi Arabia due to a travel ban from his original sentencing. Almadi’s son reportedly met with State Department officials last week about the travel ban. State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel welcomed the news of Almadi’s release, but declined to comment further.

State Department Releases 2022 Human Rights Reports. On March 20, the State Department released its 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which detail human rights violations across the globe, including in the Middle East and North Africa. Secretary of State Antony Blinken introduced the reports the same day in a press conference, citing the Iranian government’s suppression of the Mahsa Amini protests as one of the most glaring human rights violations of last year. In response to a question about US support for states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel in spite of their gross violations, which were identified in the report, Secretary Blinken responded that the United States has “tough discussions across the board with friends, adversaries, and competitors alike,” and stated that the US government calls out human rights violators both publicly and privately.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Moroccan Foreign Minister. On March 20, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita to discuss peace and security in the Middle East and North Africa. Both leaders expressed their support for democratic elections in Libya, as well as their concern about escalating violence in the West Bank. Secretary Blinken also expressed gratitude for King Mohammed VI’s efforts to promote peace and stability in Israel and Palestine. Both leaders also expressed their appreciation for UN Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General Staffan de Mistura for pursuing Morocco’s Autonomy Plan to address the conflict in Western Sahara, offering their support for a political solution to the crisis.

State Department Releases Joint Statement on Syria Envoy Meeting in Amman. On March 23, the State Department released a joint statement with governments whose officials met in Amman, Jordan on March 21 to discuss the situation in Syria following the February 6 earthquakes. In the joint statement, the governments welcomed the outcomes of the March 20 donors’ conference in Brussels and looked forward to the seventh annual Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria and the Region in June. The governments also reiterated their support for cross-border humanitarian aid and UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

State Department Recognizes Fourth Anniversary of IS Defeat. On March 23, the State Department recognized the fourth anniversary of the US-led Global Coalition’s territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, and also recognized the important role of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi Security Forces in the defeat. In the statement, the State Department committed to continuing the Global Coalition’s work to help repatriate internally displaced persons (IDPs) residing in camps such as al-Hol in Syria that have been identified as recruiting grounds for IS.

3) Department of Defense

US Responds to Drone Attack in Syria with Air Strikes. On March 23, the Department of Defense announced that an Iranian-origin drone struck a Coalition base near Hasaka in northeast Syria, injuring five US service members and killing a US military contractor. In response, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, at the direction of President Biden, authorized US Central Command (CENTCOM) to conduct precision airstrikes in eastern Syria against groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The US airstrikes reportedly killed 19 people. On March 25, President Biden sent a letter to Congress justifying the strikes and told reporters that, “The United States does not…seek conflict with Iran.”

US Sending Old Attack Planes to Middle East, Transferring Advanced Aircraft to East Asia. The US military is reportedly deploying old A-10 attack planes to the Middle East in April so that it can remove advanced combat aircraft from the region and send it to Europe and East Asia to deter against Chinese and Russian aggressions. The A-10 attack plans have reportedly been criticized as too vulnerable and slow to combat the Chinese military, but still have utility against Iranian naval craft and militias in the Middle East. US Central Command (CENTCOM) Spokesperson Colonel Joe Buccino defended the decision, stating that the United States must “cultivate deep, abiding partnerships that can serve as a hedge against threats in the region while deterring Iran.”

4) US Agency for International Development

USAID Announces $50 Million for Earthquake Relief in Syria and Turkey. On March 20, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced an additional $50 million for earthquake-affected communities in Syria and Turkey. The USAID announcement brings the total US earthquake response to $235 million, and aims to provide relief following the worst earthquakes in the region to date, which have resulted in the displacement of millions and a death toll reaching more than 50,000. The USAID assistance seeks to expand delivery of sanitation, shelter, water, and food.

5) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department and FBI Announce Sanctions Targeting Iranian Drone Programs. On March 21, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the FBI sanctioned Iranian and Turkish individuals and entities that have been involved in the procurement of Iranian drones and other weapons. The sanctions target Iranian companies and suppliers, as well as a Murat Bukey, a Turkish procurement agent who used his company to sell 100 European-origin drone engines and more than $1 million in related accessories to Iran.