Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Cardin and Van Hollen Urge Secretary Mayorkas to Renew Sudan’s Temporary Protected Status. On May 17, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas urging him to renew the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation for immigrants from Sudan. The senators highlighted the fact that without TPS, Sudanese immigrants in the United States would struggle to find work and face deportation to the ongoing violence in Sudan. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, over 800,000 Sudanese people have been internally displaced and more than 220,000 refugees have left the country because of the violence that began on April 15. Sudan’s TPS status has been in effect since 1997 and is set to expire on October 19, 2023.

Representative Omar Criticizes US Drone Program After Syrian Civilian Killed. On May 19, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) responded to the news that a drone strike that the US military initially said targeted and killed a senior al-Qaeda leader on May 3 actually killed a Syrian civilian instead. US Defense officials have since walked back their initial claims about the strike, leading Representative Omar to call for accountability for the victim. Representative Omar stated, “There is simply no way to conduct the [drone] program humanely,” despite the Biden administration’s “commendable progress on civilian harm.” In the weeks since the strike, a Washington Post report has gathered evidence, including interviews with locals and a video by humanitarian organization Syria Civil Defense (the White Helmets), that contradicts a US Central Command statement that was released hours after the attack.

Representatives Tlaib and Khanna Lead 39 Democrats in Letter to Biden on Yemen. On May 18, Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ro Khanna (D-CA) led 39 House Democrats in sending a letter to President Biden and his Yemen policy team commending the administration’s work on recent peace developments in Yemen and urging it to continue working to end the war. More specifically, the letter calls on the administration to clearly state that it will not provide support to any party that continues to fuel the conflict, will call on regional actors like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to leave occupied territories, and will clearly state that the United States will not support Saudi blockades of Yemen’s ports and urge that no weapons from outside actors should enter Yemen. The letter also calls on the administration to increase humanitarian aid to Yemen and to take a leading role in its post-conflict reconstruction. The call for increased US humanitarian funding follows an earlier letter from Representative Tlaib and 23 other House Democrats requesting $1.2 billion in funding for Yemen in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget.

Representatives Raskin and Eshoo Lead 46 House Democrats in Letter Supporting Israeli Judicial Overhaul Protesters. On May 24, Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) led 46 House Democrats in writing a letter supporting Israeli protestors opposing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed changes to the country’s judiciary. In the letter, the lawmakers commend the protesters for “the fortitude [they] have shown in facing down efforts to erode Israeli democracy,” and emphasize the importance of democracy for the success of the US-Israel relationship. This new letter follows pressure from congressional Democrats over the past four months, with many calling on the Biden administration to push the Netanyahu government to halt its plans.

Senators Van Hollen and Schatz Lead 14 Senate Democrats in Letter on Israel’s Entry into the Visa Waiver Program. On May 24, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) led 14 Senate Democrats in sending a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas regarding Israel’s efforts to join the US Visa Waiver Program. In the letter, the senators argue that Israel does not currently meet the reciprocity requirements to join the waiver program because of its unfair treatment of Muslim and Arab American citizens crossing the Israeli border into Israel/Palestine.

Representative Pocan Leads 10 House Democrats in Letter on PayPal Service in the West Bank and Gaza. On May 24, Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI) led 10 other House Democrats in sending a letter to PayPal CEO Dan Schulman urging the company to provide services to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Although PayPal provides services to Israeli citizens in illegal settlements in the West Bank, it does not work with Palestinians living there or in Gaza. The representatives argue that PayPal’s current policy “may be infringing upon the rights of Palestinians” and “may only exacerbate economic hardship, and therefore political instability” in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Democratic Lawmakers Call for Changes to COP28 in Letter to Biden, European Leaders. On May 23, Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) led a total of 133 members of Congress and the European Parliament in sending a letter to President Biden, EU President Ursula von der Leyen, and other global leaders asking them to address the influence of the fossil fuel industry at the upcoming COP28 climate summit in Dubai. The lawmakers specifically pressed for the removal of Sultan al-Jaber, who heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, from the position of president-designate for the climate conference, and urged new policies to prevent fossil fuel lobbyists from participating in the event.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

White House Releases National Strategy Against Antisemitism. On May 25, the White House released its national strategy against antisemitism. Among other efforts to fight antisemitism, the strategy contains calls for congressional action, increased monitoring on technology platforms, and improved civic education. Significantly, the Biden administration will reportedly acknowledge alternative definitions of antisemitism beyond the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, which the US government has used since 2018.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Threatens Sudanese Cease-fire Violators with Sanctions. On May 22, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a seven-day cease-fire in Sudan in a message to the Sudanese people. Secretary Blinken warned violators of the cease-fire that they would be held accountable through “sanctions and other tools at our disposal,” and emphasized that Sudanese civilians “must be the ones to define Sudan’s path going forward” as the United States seeks to restore Sudan’s democratic transition. The cease-fire is the result of negotiations facilitated by the United States and Saudi Arabia between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, and is focused on ending violence and rebuilding critical infrastructure in Sudan. It is the seventh attempt so far to end violence in Sudan. On May 26, Saudi Arabia and the United States said that the warring sides are abiding by the cease-fire.

Secretary Blinken Announces More US Aid for Sudan and Neighboring Countries. On May 23, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced $245 million in funding for Sudan and surrounding countries, including $143 million for the State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugee, and Migration and $103 million in USAID funding. Secretary Blinken stated that the new funding aims to help humanitarian partners respond to the needs of the estimated 840,000 people who have been internally displaced and the 250,000 people who have fled to neighboring countries. US humanitarian assistance to Sudan and its neighbors now totals $880 million in FY 2023.

State Department Targets Russian-Iranian Maritime Logistics Networks in Latest Sanctions Against Russia. On May 19, the State Department detailed its latest sanctions against Russia, which seek to disrupt supply chains and close sanctions evasion loopholes. Among the individuals and entities targeted, the State Department has designated four shipping companies as “part of a logistics network deepening ties between Russia and Iran.” These sanctions come as part of larger efforts by the State Department to hamper Russia-Iran military exchanges.

State Department Designates al-Shabab Leaders as Terrorists. On May 24, Secretary of State Antony Blinken designated five al-Shabab leaders as terrorists for their financial, military, and intelligence roles in the organization’s operations. Secretary Blinken’s announcement comes in tandem with Department of the Treasury sanctions on al-Shabab, underscoring the US government’s efforts to counter terrorism in Somalia and greater East Africa.

Secretary Blinken Celebrates US-Jordanian Friendship on Jordan’s National Day. On May 25, Secretary of State Antony Blinken marked the 77th anniversary of Jordan’s independence. In a statement, Secretary Blinken wrote, “The United States knows we can rely on Jordan when facing difficult situations and challenges,” adding that, “We are grateful to be such close partners and friends.”

Secretary Blinken Marks Yemen’s 33rd National Unity Day with Wishes for Peace. On May 22, Secretary of State Antony Blinken commemorated Yemen’s 33rd National Unity Day. In a statement, Secretary Blinken reiterated US support for “the UN-led peace effort to advance a Yemeni-Yemeni political process” to resolve the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

3) Department of Defense

US Navy Partners with Allies to Deter Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. On May 19, the commanders of the US, British, and French naval forces stationed in the Middle East transited the Strait of Hormuz to signify their commitment to keeping the waterway open for commercial ships. This symbolic move by the allied navies is part of the Biden administration’s “deterrence by detection” approach to Iran’s activities, which involves placing more US forces in the Strait of Hormuz and preventing further seizures or attacks on commercial ships. US Navy Vice Admiral Brad Cooper stated that “Iran has seized or attacked 15 ships in the last two years,” thereby threatening the global economy and commercial shipping.

Combined Maritime Forces Naval Partnership Creates New Training Task Force in the Middle East. On May 22, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) naval partnership established a new Combined Task Force (CTF), CTF 154, which will focus on maritime security training. CMF is a multinational partnership of 38 nations dedicated to upholding “the international rules-based order at sea.” According to US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the establishment of CTF 154 is intended to demonstrate CMF’s “deep commitment to strengthening and expanding partnerships…that will enhance regional maritime security,” and is tied to US efforts to counter Iran’s maritime activities in the Arabian Gulf.

US Air Force Posts, Then Deletes Photos of Bunker-Busting Bombs Amid Iranian Nuclear Tensions. On May 2, the US Air Force posted images of the “GBU-57,” also known as the “Massive Ordnance Penetrator,” a bomb designed to penetrate 200 feet of ground and cement before detonating, but then quickly deleted the images, as they presumably revealed details about the weapon. The US Air Force published the pictures amid rising nuclear tensions with Iran, which is currently building a nuclear facility deep underground in Natanz, beyond the GBU-57’s range. Experts believe that Iran could likely enrich uranium in the new facility.

Assistant Secretary Karlin Lays out Defense Department Priorities in the Middle East. On May 24, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities Mara Karlin spoke about US Defense priorities in the Middle East. Her speech focused on the Department of Defense’s (DoD) shifting focus from a boots-on-the-ground approach to deterrence via “effective and sustainable” engagement and posture. In the coming years, Karlin said that DoD will look to increase its integration and interoperability with allied forces in land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace operations in a strategy that she termed “integrated deterrence.” Karlin also addressed recent attacks by Iran-backed militias on US forces, Chinese investment in the Middle East and North Africa, and Syria’s readmission to the Arab League, emphasizing that the United States is responding vigilantly and quickly to efforts that undermine stability and peace in the region.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Announces Sanctions on al-Shabab Smugglers in Somalia. On May 24, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned 26 individuals and entities in Somalia connected to the al-Shabab organization. The sanctions target 15 al-Shabab financial facilitators and operatives, four charcoal smugglers, and seven companies associated with the individuals.

5) US Agency for International Development

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield Announces $524 Million for the Horn of Africa. On May 24, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced that the United States will provide $524 million in humanitarian assistance, including $416 million from USAID and $108 million from the State Department, in response to a drought in the Horn of Africa.

III. Judicial Branch

American Citizen Convicted in US Court Over Charges of Torture, Smuggling in Iraq. On May 19, a federal jury convicted an American man, Ross Roggio, on charges of torture, conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States, and the export of weapons to Iraq without US government approval. According to the Department of Justice, Roggio was accused of holding captive and torturing an Estonian citizen for 39 days in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) in 2015, after the man attempted to interfere with Roggio’s illegal weapons operation. Roggio was running a weapons factory in the KRI, producing M4 automatic rifles and Glock 9mm pistols. He was arrested in February 2022.