Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Bipartisan Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Counter Assad Normalization. On May 11, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) led a bipartisan group of representatives in introducing H.R.3202, the Assad Anti-Normalization Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would prohibit any US government agency from recognizing or normalizing relations with Assad, expand US sanctions under the Caesar Act, allow congressional leaders to request that the president sanction Syrian individuals under the Caesar Act, and require an annual strategy for US efforts to counter other states’ efforts to normalize relations with the Assad regime. The introduction of the bill quickly follows the Arab League’s readmission of the Assad regime last week, which led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to reiterate the Biden administration’s opposition to the regime’s normalization in the Arab world. The new legislation seems to be a congressional priority, as it will quickly go into House Foreign Affairs Committee markup on May 16.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Reintroduce Bill Targeting Palestinian Authority and UNRWA Educational Materials. On May 11, Representatives Brad Sherman (D-CA), Brian Mast (R-FL), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Elise Stefanik (R-NY), and David Trone (D-MD) reintroduced H.R. 3266, the Peace and Tolerance in Palestinian Education Act. The bill aims to create a US reporting system to conduct oversight of educational materials produced by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which the lawmakers claim include incitement and antisemitism. The bill was introduced and passed unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee during both the 116th and 117th Congresses, suggesting broad bipartisan support.

House Foreign Affairs Leaders Introduce Bill to Sanction Iran’s Missile and Drone Program. On May 9, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY), joined the committee’s MENA Subcommittee chairman, Joe Wilson (R-SC), and its ranking member, Dean Phillips (D-MN), in introducing H.R. 3152, the Fight CRIME Act. The bill aims to target Iran’s missile and drone program, including the use of Iranian drones in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, through a sanctions program that targets anyone involved in the supply, sale, transfer of, or support for Iranian missiles and drones. The bill also requires the Biden administration to submit reports to Congress outlining Iran’s missile and drone program, its financial and strategic benefits, and a strategic response to the program.

Representative Tlaib Leads Progressives in Introducing Resolution Recognizing the Nakba. On May 10, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), along with five progressive Democratic cosponsors, introduced H.Res.388, a resolution recognizing the ongoing Nakba and the rights of Palestinian refugees. The resolution comes as Palestinians prepare to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1948 Nakba, when Zionist militias forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as the State of Israel declared its independence. Representative Tlaib announced the resolution during a contentious event on the Hill that Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had attempted to cancel.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Foreign Affairs Committee Leaders Condemn Syria’s Readmission to the Arab League. On May 8 and 9, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY), and those of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID), condemned the Arab League’s readmission of Syria into its ranks on May 7. Representatives McCaul and Meeks called the decision “a grave strategic mistake” and called on the Biden administration to “fully enforce the Caesar Act and other sanctions to freeze normalization efforts with this war criminal.” Senators Menendez and Risch echoed these calls. On May 11, Senator Risch expressed his opposition to Assad’s normalization to Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Salem Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah during a meeting in Washington.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Bipartisan Senators Press Biden Administrative Officials During SFRC Hearing on Sudan. On May 10, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the conflict in Sudan, featuring testimony from Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Assistant USAID Administrator Sarah Charles. Both the chairman and ranking member of the committee, Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID), opened the hearing with critical remarks about the Biden administration’s policy toward Sudan, with Senator Menendez calling President Biden’s May 4 executive order “long overdue,” and with Senator Risch calling for more sanctions designations under the order. Senator Menendez also criticized the administration’s response to the non-embassy affiliated American citizens who were “left to fend for themselves” after fighting broke out between warring factions of Sudan’s military apparatus. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) pressed the administration officials on the role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Sudan, and Under Secretary Nuland referenced both countries’ interests in Sudan, but said that both states are working on peace negotiations. Nuland told the senators that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with the two rival generals seven times and offered various ways to integrate their respective armies, but the generals “chose the path of war.” She also stated that the United States and its partners have told the generals that “there can be no military solution to the crisis.”

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

White House and Biden Administration Welcome End to Israeli Airstrikes on Gaza. On May 8, the same day that top White House officials met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, the Israeli government authorized an airstrike campaign in Gaza. Throughout last week, the Israeli military bombed Gaza repeatedly, supposedly targeting leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and killing 33 Palestinians, including at least 13 civilians, among them children and women. Palestinian military groups responded with rockets fired at Israel, killing two Israelis. Throughout the Israeli bombing campaign, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with their Israeli counterparts, reiterating the administration’s ironclad support for Israel. On May 11, the United States blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the Israeli attacks on Gaza. On May 13, the White House and the State Department welcomed a cease-fire agreement that had been brokered by Egypt and Qatar, again reaffirming the United States’ support for Israel’s security and justifying the assault. Throughout the cease-fire negotiations, Secretary Blinken spoke with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

Senior White House Officials Meet with Netanyahu to Discuss Saudi Normalization. On May 8, White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and Special Coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security Amos Hochstein met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem following a trip to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Netanyahu also spoke on the phone with White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, all reportedly as a part of US diplomatic efforts to push for a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, discussing a tenuous break in violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Details Biden Administration’s Middle East Approach. On May 4, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke about the Biden administration’s strategy towards the Middle East, introducing a new framework for US engagement built on five elements: partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy and de-escalation, integration, and values. Sullivan touted what he defined as the Biden administration’s successes in the Middle East since 2020, such as attempts to expand the Abraham Accords, the creation of the Negev Forum, deterrence efforts against the so-called Islamic State, and ongoing peace talks in Yemen.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Says US is Continuing Mediation Efforts in Sudan. On May 9, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States is working with Saudi Arabia and other countries on a cease-fire agreement in Sudan. Representatives from the two warring sides, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Army, reportedly met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on May 7. Secretary Blinken, speaking of efforts by the US and other mediators, stated, “Together now, we are pressing the warring parties in Sudan to put down their guns and allow life-saving aid to reach the Sudanese people.” According to Secretary Blinken, US diplomats are working with diplomats from Saudi Arabia, the UK, the UAE, and the African Union. The talks have not yet produced a durable cease-fire, and the death toll continues to rise in Sudan. On May 11, the State Department announced that both sides have signed a Declaration of Commitment to Protect Civilians. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee has been heading US delegations in both Jeddah and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, leading US pre-negotiation talks.

Special Envoy for Yemen Lenderking Gives Briefing on Ongoing Peace Talks. On May 11, State Department Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking discussed ongoing peace talks in Yemen following his most recent trip to the Gulf to meet with Yemeni, Omani, and Saudi senior officials. Lenderking said that there has been “tremendous progress” in the peace negotiations, but still recognized the ongoing humanitarian crisis and the continued need for a Yemeni-led political process to achieve a durable peace. During the briefing, Lenderking said that Iran has continued smuggling weapons to the Houthis in Yemen, despite the agreement it reportedly came to with Saudi Arabia following the China-brokered rapprochement between the two states in March.

3) Department of Defense

US Intelligence Leak Reveals Iran Used Earthquake Aid to Move Weapons into Syria. On May 7, a Washington Post investigation into US intelligence documents that were leaked on the VoIP and messaging app Discord reported that Iran has used its humanitarian shipments to Syria in the wake of the February 6 earthquake that struck the area to funnel weapons, including small arms, ammunition, and drones, to groups in Syria that have attacked US troops. In response to the investigation, a US military official said that the use of humanitarian shipments following the earthquake is consistent with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) prior use of humanitarian aid to provide weapons to groups in Syria and Iraq. A US official stated, however, that no weapons funneled via earthquake aid were used in the March 23, 2023 attack that killed a US contractor in Syria.

4) Department of Justice

FBI Seizes Website Domains to Counter Hezbollah. On May 11, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced that it had seized 13 website domains from already-sanctioned businesses, associates, and charities affiliated with Hezbollah. The seizure includes websites for top Hezbollah officials like Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem and Hezbollah-affiliated charities like the Martyrs’ Foundation.