Congressional Update – Week Ending April 6, 2018

I. Congress

Lawmakers finished the last few days of their two-week recess and will return to Washington for legislative business on April 9. While there were no notable congressional hearings relative to the Middle East, some lawmakers did take to social media to decry Israel’s aggressive way of handling the nonviolent protests—known as the “Great March of Return”—that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip started on March 30. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) leaders positioned snipers hundreds of meters from the border fence that divides Gaza from Israeli territory and ordered them to shoot at the unarmed protestors. Eighteen Palestinians were killed and over 1,000 were injured. (In similar protests on April 6, seven were killed and 1,070 were wounded.)

Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) and Barbara Lee (D-California) have publicly taken a position against the IDF’s disproportionate response to the first protests, but they stand as the minority of lawmakers who have spoken out. In the Senate, the near total silence has been equally deafening. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) sent a pair of tweets in support of the Palestinians. His fellow Vermont senator, Democrat Patrick Leahy—according to an unnamed aide cited by a left-leaning media outlet that reached out to all the senate offices for comment—expressed concern about the use of live ammunition on peaceful protesters, noting that he will look into the situation when he returns from a trip to Europe. ACW could not independently verify the comments made on Leahy’s position.

As for the Executive Branch, there have been no comments on Gaza from the president—nor did he mention Gaza in his phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a readout. The special envoy for the peace process, Jason Greenblatt, issued a statement through the State Department urging Gazans to remain peaceful and for both sides to find ways to bring about a peaceful resolution to the situation in Gaza. Greenblatt neglected to condemn Israel’s use of live ammunition against the unarmed Palestinians or the deaths the IDF has caused. At the international level, the administration blocked a resolution in the UN Security Council calling for an investigation into the death of Palestinians in Gaza at the hands of the IDF.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

The Trump Administration’s Contradictory Plan for Syria. President Trump muddied the waters on his administration’s strategy for Syria this week. During an interview, he reiterated his surprise announcement that he intends to withdraw the 2,000 US troops stationed in Syria “very soon.” Defense and security officials were surprised and urged the president not to withdraw forces, with the fight in Syria unfinished. Eventually the president relented, begrudgingly accepting his advisors’ suggestions, and the White House released a statement saying the United States will remain committed in the fight to destroy the Islamic State.

President Trump Talks with Egyptian President, Qatari Emir, and Saudi King. Throughout the week, President Trump held conversations with a number of the region’s leaders. First, he spoke with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to congratulate him in the wake of his recent—and highly controversial—win in the presidential elections. He also spoke with both Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The official White House readouts suggest that the president had cordial conversations with both leaders about handling terrorist financing and extremism, countering Iran, and urging unity in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). However, other media reports about the calls indicate that Trump may have taken a more tense tone with the two, with the president reportedly boasting about securing $4 billion from the Saudis in order to stabilize Syria, and telling one Gulf leader that without US involvement in Syria, the Gulf monarchs would have to forgo their lavish lifestyles. Later, it was reported that the White House was postponing the Gulf summit that was originally scheduled in May to resolve the GCC infighting, but the emir of Qatar is still scheduled to visit Washington next week.

2) State Department

Deputy Secretary Sullivan Meets with Moroccan FM. Deputy Director of the State Department John Sullivan met with the foreign minister of Morocco, Nasser Bourita, this week to discuss bilateral and regional security concerns. Additionally, Sullivan told the foreign minister that the United States supports a UN-led political solution to its dispute with the Polisario in the contested Western Sahara—this coming just a day before Bourita told the UN secretary-general that Morocco would consider “all options” to address the situation with the Polisario.

Earlier in the week, the Defense Department also announced it would be providing Morocco’s military with over 160 Abrams tanks through the Excess Defense Article (EDA) program. This provision allows for the United States to give friendly militaries equipment that it no longer needs or wants to refurbish for little-to-no cost. The process is what is considered “where is, as is”; this means that the Moroccans will be responsible for transporting the tanks to their border and will also have to carry out any repairs and replacements or purchase any supporting equipment from their own budget.

3) Administration Personnel

Iraq and Syria: Views from the US Administration, Military Leaders, and the Region. On April 3, the US Institute for Peace held a day-long conference to explore the current situation in both Iraq and Syria and to probe experts and military and administration officials about the United States’ strategy for the countries moving forward. The keynote session brought together three high-ranking officials to discuss the issues: General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command; Mark Green, administrator of the US Agency for International Development; and Brett McGurk, special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State (IS). Though each of the officials has a different focus in Iraq and Syria, all three agreed that their respective plans are carefully coordinated with the others in order to ensure that the US approach is efficient and well integrated enough to secure, stabilize, and develop liberated areas in quick succession.

For his part, Votel noted that the military campaign has slowed down in recent months as IS fighters are now isolated in remote areas between the Syrian and Iraqi border, but that in total, the campaign is further along now than the military had predicted it would be a year ago. In Iraq, Votel lauded the capability of the Iraqi military and security forces and said that generally, the United States and its allies are in a good position in Iraq. As for Syria, however, Votel explained that because of the vastly different situation there, with multiple rivals vying for control, the military is trying to focus on liberating IS-controlled areas without supporting nefarious actors like Syria’s Assad regime, Iran, and Russia. At this point, US forces and US allies—namely the Syrian Kurdish forces—have liberated almost 90 percent of former IS territory. Votel cautioned, however, that “the hard part is in front of us” in Syria.

Green and McGurk chronicled the progress the United States and its allies have made to this point. Echoing many of Votel’s points, they highlighted how much territory has been liberated and discussed the financial contributions the United States and its allies have provided for rehabilitating Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Syria. Most notable was Green’s discussion on future goals. He said that aid and development will be crucial for helping Iraqi and Syrian communities to function again and for preventing the rise of other non-state actors. The Trump Administration is weeks away from releasing the “Stabilization Assistance Review,” which is intended to be the United States’ interagency blueprint for administrating assistance to post-IS Iraq and Syria.

III. Judicial Branch

Sokolow v. Palestine Liberation Organization. This week, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal on a lower federal appellate court’s ruling that tossed out a $656 million award to plaintiffs suffering damages from attacks in Israel. Americans who were injured or were relatives of those injured in six different attacks in Israel sued the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), arguing that the entities provided money, training, and personnel to Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade to carry out violent attacks in Israel. The first court to hear the case actually sided with the plaintiffs, awarding them almost $220 million, which was then tripled under a 1992 federal terrorism law. However, the PA and PLO appealed the decision and the federal appellate court sided with them, stating that US courts do not have jurisdiction to hear legal challenges against the two entities.