Congressional Update – Week Ending June 29, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Defense Spending. This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed its version of the Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2019 while the House as a whole moved to adopt its own version. Both plans would allocate some $675 billion to the Department of Defense along the same lines as those outlined by the National Defense Authorization Act (see here for Middle East related provisions). The Senate will likely vote on its version in two weeks, after it returns from the July Fourth holiday recess.

1158. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) reported favorably a bill called Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018 which aims to place genocide prevention at the forefront at US foreign policy. In the wake of atrocities committed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) against some of the Middle East’s most vulnerable communities (such as the Yezidis in Iraq), many observers argued the United States was not acting with the appropriate urgency to prevent such war crimes and crimes against humanity. This legislation would place genocide prevention at the forefront of US national security concerns.

In a similar regard, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Ed Royce (R-California) met with a Syrian defector known as Caesar and, after hearing Caesar’s latest description of the atrocities being carried out by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called on the Senate to adopt the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2017, which the House passed over a year ago. This bill looks to sanction “Assad and his backers, hold war criminals accountable, and give justice to victims of atrocities in Syria.”

H.R. 1697. The HFAC voted in favor of moving forward the most recent version of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, the same bill that has repeatedly been opposed by civil liberties groups. This version supposedly addresses the previous concerns by narrowing the scope of who is at risk of being punished to just businesses and their employees, should they participate in any internationally organized Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign. Further, this version seeks to pass the buck to the Trump Administration to enforce the anti-boycott regulations laid out in the bill. Regardless of how the bills’ supporters characterize it—such as simply “updating” laws to combat unfair trade practices against US allies—civil liberties advocates will surely weigh in before the full House votes.

H.R. 5898. The HFAC ushered through a bill this week known as the UNRWA Accountability Act of 2018. UNRWA—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—is responsible for overseeing the well-being of registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the Middle East and it has long drawn the ire of the conservative government of Israel and the most ardent pro-Israel members of Congress due to the agency’s perceived anti-Israel bias. This legislation reflects that sentiment and requires the president to certify a report that outlines the kinds of reforms the United States desires from UNRWA and, if it fails to reform, lays out the administration’s plans for modifying the funding the body receives from Washington.

2) Events

Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Holds Briefings on Religious Minorities. The bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) held two briefings this week to explore the challenges facing two specific religious minority communities: the Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims. The two separate, but related, briefings illustrated a point that is often underreported: in the Arab and broader Middle East, certain Muslim groups are often subjected to the same discrimination as the well-documented cases against Christians and others. For example, Shia Muslims frequently confront legal—often violent—discrimination and harassment in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere. Though the situation of Ahmadiyya Muslims is most pronounced in Pakistan, the group also faces forms of discrimination in Algeria. Ultimately, all the witnesses who testified before the TLHRC called on the United States to push for securing human rights for vulnerable Muslim minority communities in the Middle East just as it would lobby for those rights for Christian or Jewish minorities.

3) Correspondence

Senator Menendez Freezes Weapons Sale to Saudis. The ranking member of the SFRC, Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), wrote letters to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis this week telling them he is freezing the proposed munitions sales to Saudi Arabia over his concerns about Saudi efforts—or lack thereof—to minimize civilian deaths in the campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. As a condition for lifting his hold, Menendez seeks briefings from the cabinet members’ respective departments on US policy toward Yemen and the efforts being made to alleviate senators’ concerns about the way the Saudi-led coalition is executing its anti-Houthi operations.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

King Abdullah II Visits the White House. After top aides Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II last week in their efforts to engage Arab leaders on their yet-to-be-revealed US peace plan, King Abdullah requested a meeting with President Trump himself. The monarch is likely very concerned about the peace plan the administration is looking to propose because, of all the countries contiguous to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan could face the most instability if the plan sparks outrage. Indeed, at a time when the Jordanian government is experiencing internal pressure, anything that inflames tensions with its majority-Palestinian population could destabilize the situation in Amman. Additionally, the king sought assurances from Washington that it would maintain its support as further fighting in Syria risks pushing more Syrians to seek refuge in Jordan. Aside from meeting Trump in the Oval Office, King Abdullah also met with congressional members of the HFAC.

Trump Administration Taking Hard Line Against Iranian Oil Imports. Administration officials in the Departments of State and Treasury have been meeting recently with US allies and trading partners to pass along a tough message from the administration: cut your Iran oil imports “to zero” or be sanctioned. It should be no surprise that the administration was serious about ratcheting up financial pressure on Tehran, but requiring countries to terminate their oil imports from Iran is perceived as extreme. As a comparison, the crippling sanctions the Obama Administration strained to impose only asked reluctant players like China and India to cut their imports of Iranian crude by 18-20 percent. The State Department released a summary this week of efforts its officials have taken to discuss re-imposing sanctions on Iran more broadly, along with the oil embargo, but the administration is sure to receive pushback because of global tensions about trade.

2) State Department

Secretary Pompeo Welcomes Qatari, Saudi Ministers. This week, Secretary Pompeo had bilateral meetings with top Middle East allies. First he welcomed the Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, with whom he discussed issues of mutual interest like countering terrorism financing and resolving the year-old Gulf Cooperation Council crisis. Later in the week he met with Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry, and Mineral Resources Khalid al-Falih. Though the State Department readout notes they spoke generally of energy issues, it is all but certain that Pompeo broached the issue of raising oil output in order to stabilize oil prices, as the administration tries to embargo Iran’s crude oil exports. Additionally, the two likely spoke about the Saudis’ nuclear energy ambitions, which have been a point of contention in the past.

Between those visits, Pompeo made a trip to Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the fiscal year 2019 State Department budget. For a helpful breakdown of what is being proposed, read here.

McGurk Visits Morocco. The Special Envoy to the coalition to defeat IS, Brett McGurk, was in Rabat, Morocco this week to meet with other coalition officials. McGurk gave a status update on the coalition’s anti-IS campaign and discussed other pressing issues like fundraising and stabilization efforts. Ultimately, McGurk said, the campaign has been effective although progress is still to be made, particularly when it comes to post-IS stabilization. In a similar regard, the State Department released details of US plans to co-host three meetings on counterterrorism at the UN General Assembly biennial review of the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy and the High-Level Conference of Heads of Counterterrorism Agencies of Member States that follows it.

Sullivan Visits Algeria, Tunisia. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan is completing a trip to Europe and North Africa this week. In Algiers, Sullivan met with Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel on the sidelines of the US-Algeria Counterterrorism Dialogue. Algeria is considered a top ally in preventing the establishment of IS cells in North Africa, especially as it shares a long border with Libya where the instability offers potential safe havens for terrorist groups. Sullivan was to meet Tunisian officials on June 29 to discuss similar counterterrorism concerns, but as of this publication no official readout is available.

State, UN Officials Discuss Refugees. The State Department also released a summary of a joint meeting between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The joint dialogue is intended to review shared goals between the United States and the UN body and determine the best use of US funding. Ironically, the United States emphasized burden sharing—asking the UNHCR to take more responsibility—while, at the same time, it has accepted its fewest levels of refugees in years, withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council, and threatens spending cuts to UN human rights efforts.

III. Judicial Branch

SCOTUS Upholds Controversial Travel Ban 5-4. The Supreme Court released its long-awaited decision regarding the third iteration of the administration’s executive order curbing immigration from seven countries—five of which are majority Muslim—which many decried as a “Muslim ban.” As detailed here, the government had appealed previous lower court rulings that froze the ban from being enforced, arguing that the courts do not have the authority to override the president’s directive as it was a national security issue that is almost completely under the purview of the executive branch. The Supreme Court’s five conservatives ruled in favor of that argument, deciding that previous legislation passed by Congress defers a great deal of power to the president to decide who can enter the United States. When it came to the question of religious animus on the part of the government—explicitly prohibited by the Constitution’s First Amendment—the five justices also ruled that the ban is not religious in nature because, on its face, it does not actually mention Muslims or the religion of Islam. This kind of reading is not unusual with conservative justices, as they are largely viewed as “literalists” who do not look past the plainly stated text to determine the government’s intent regarding an action. For the foreseeable future, therefore, Arab citizens from Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen may find it impossible to enter the United States.