Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Representative Bacon Introduces Bill to Arm Iraqi Security and Kurdish Peshmerga Forces. On August 18, Representative Don Bacon (R-NE) introduced H.R.5232, the Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga Forces Defense Act of 2023. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would direct the secretary of defense and the secretary of state to develop a plan to equip and train Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to defend against attack by missiles, rockets, and drones. The bill follows an amendment passed by the House Armed Services Committee in June during markup of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which supported the transfer of air defense systems to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Speaking on the June amendment, Rep. Bacon noted that it offered an opportunity to “help the Kurds in Iraq have better air defenses against Iran’s continued missile and drone strikes.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representatives Khanna and McGovern Call for Release of Bahraini Political Prisoner. Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to call for the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a political activist currently detained in Bahrain for his participation in pro-democracy protests. Representative Khanna called on the Department of State to add al-Khawaja to its #WithoutJustCause political prisoner campaign, which advocates for the release of political prisoners who are imprisoned for exercising their human rights. Al-Khwaja is one of more than 700 prisoners who are currently staging a hunger strike in Bahrain’s Jau prison.

Bipartisan House Foreign Affairs Committee Delegation Visits Israel, Turkey. Last week, a bipartisan group of US representatives, including Representatives Joe Wilson (R-SC), Dean Phillips (D-MD), and Victoria Spartz (R-IN) concluded a trip to Israel. Speaking on a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Representative Spartz commented that it was “productive,” adding that “a strong US-Israel relationship remains the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Middle East.” The delegation also met with government leaders and members of parliament in Turkey.

Representatives McCaul, Scalise, and Stefanik Write President Biden on Iran Policy. On August 21, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX), House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), and House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY) wrote a letter to President Biden regarding reports that Iran slowed its enrichment of uranium before reaching a prisoner exchange deal with the United States. In the letter, the representatives argued that the timing of these developments suggest that the Biden administration “brokered a $6 billion prisoner deal and a nuclear ‘understanding’” with Iran, which would violate its legal obligation under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 to submit for congressional review any “agreement related to the nuclear program of Iran” requiring US action.

Representatives McCaul and Mast Send Letter to Secretary Blinken on Robert Malley’s Security Clearance. On August 18, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX) and House Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability Chair Brian Mast (R-FL) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding the suspension of Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley’s security clearance. In the letter, the lawmakers express their dissatisfaction that the State Department “knew about Mr. Malley’s situation for months but did not communicate to Congress about it,” despite interest from the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) in receiving testimony from Special Envoy Malley about Iran policy.

Representative Wilson Reacts to Syrian Protests, Discourages Normalization with Assad. On August 24, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) commented on ongoing protests in Syria, writing on X (formerly Twitter) that the “multi-ethnic and cross-sectarian protests across Syria against brutal Assad last week have inspired the world and demonstrate that Syria has no future and will never stabilize under Assad.” Wilson encouraged Congress to pass the bipartisan Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023, a bill that was introduced in the house in May.

Representatives Hill, Cline, and Fitzgerald Visit Northern Syria. On August 27, Representatives French Hill (R-AR), Ben Cline (R-VA), and Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) briefly traveled to northwest Syria, marking the first known visit from a member of Congress in six years. The representatives entered Aleppo Province through the Bab al-Salama crossing and met with locals and international humanitarian actors. In a statement, Representative Hill referred to the visit as “a continuation of consultations I have held this year with diplomats and other partners in Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Italy to address the Arab League’s initiative to normalize relations with Assad.”

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

US National Security Advisor Comments on Saudi-Israeli Normalization, US-Iran Prisoner Swap. On August 22, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held a press briefing in which he addressed issues relating to Saudi-Israeli relations and the still-developing US-Iran prisoner swap. Sullivan stated that peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel would benefit the United States and “establish a more integrated, more stable Middle East region.” Commenting on the US-Iran prisoner swap, Sullivan shared that the deal remains “on track.” Although there is no exact timetable, Sullivan confirmed that “things are proceeding according to the understanding that we reached with Iran.”

2) State Department

State Department Reacts to Violence in Israel and the West Bank. On August 21, the Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs condemned an attack in Israel that killed one Israeli and wounded another. The attack coincided with the killing of an unarmed Palestinian man in the West Bank. According to an unnamed State Department spokesperson, the United States “urges a rapid completion of an objective, thorough investigation into the incident.”

State Department and White House Observe the Tenth Anniversary of the Ghouta Chemical Weapons Attack. On August 21, Secretary of State Antony Blinken marked the 10th anniversary of the Ghouta chemical attack in Syria, wherein the Assad regime killed more than 1,400 Syrian citizens with the nerve agent sarin. Secretary Blinken emphasized the United States’ commitment to justice, and to accountability for the Assad government. Blinken also criticized the Syrian government for its failure to “fully declare and verifiably eliminate its chemical weapons program,” as well as for carrying out nine subsequent chemical weapons attacks. National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson similarly remembered and honored the victims and survivors of the attack while calling for both Syria and Russia—which backs the Assad regime—to “comply with their international obligations and stop obstructing the work of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”

Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Travels to Armenia, Jordan, and Egypt. From August 21 to 28, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Rena Bitter traveled to Armenia, Jordan, and Egypt to observe US consular operations, meet with her counterparts in foreign governments, and “underscore our deep and sustained commitment to the protection of US citizens overseas and the facilitation of legitimate travel to the United States.”

Secretary Blinken Calls Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry. On August 22, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to discuss the current situations in Sudan, Niger, and Libya. Secretary Blinken also welcomed the release of Egyptian activist Ahmed Douma, stressing the importance of “progress on human rights to strengthening the US-Egypt relationship.”

Special Envoy for Yemen Discusses Conflict. On August 23, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking answered questions about his recent trip to the Arabian/Persian Gulf. Lenderking described his trip as “part of continued, intensive US diplomatic efforts to support a durable resolution to the Yemen conflict.” He affirmed that Yemen remains a US foreign policy priority and remarked on the importance of advancing “ongoing talks to secure a new, more comprehensive ceasefire agreement and to launch a UN-mediated, Yemeni-Yemeni dialogue.” Lenderking noted that he is optimistic about the prospects of such a process and urged the Houthis to sit down with the Republic of Yemen Government. He also expressed the United States’ support for “a stable, more prosperous Yemen that is free of undue foreign influence.”

State Department Publishes Israeli Visa Waiver Program Fact Sheet. On August 24, the State Department published a fact sheet on a recent US-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on travel into and out of Israel that “details the steps Israel is committed to take to extend reciprocal privileges to US citizens and nationals…as required for participation in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).” In addition to listing Israel’s newly adopted border policies, the fact sheet provides reporting mechanisms for US citizens seeking to enter Israel “who are denied entry or believe they have been discriminated against.” Pending complete implementation of the policies laid out in the MOU, the United States will decide on September 30 whether to formally admit Israel to the VWP.

State Department Condemns Comments Made by Israel’s Minister of National Security. On August 24, it was reported that a State Department spokesperson expressed US condemnation of comments made last week by Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir. The spokesperson reportedly stated, “We strongly condemn Israeli Minister Ben-Gvir’s inflammatory comments on the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents of the West Bank.” Such comments, they went on to say, “are incongruent with advancing respect for human rights for all.” In an August 23 television interview, Ben-Gvir made comments that were understood as arguing for Jewish supremacy, stating, “My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around [the West Bank] is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs. The right to life comes before freedom of movement.”

State Department Condemns Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Sudan. On August 25, the State Department released a statement condemning conflict-related sexual violence in Sudan being perpetrated by members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and their allied militias. The statement makes specific note of targeted ethnic and sexual violence in Nyala, South Darfur, where tens of thousands of civilians are currently trapped amid escalating violence between the RSF and Sudanese Armed Forces.

Biden Administration Urges Israel to Make Concessions to Palestinians as Part of Potential Saudi Normalization Deal. Last week, reports emerged that officials from the Biden administration are pressuring the Israeli government to make concessions to the Palestinians as part of a potential normalization deal with Saudi Arabia. During an August 17 meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, Blinken reportedly communicated that Israel would have to make such concessions as part of any normalization agreement. Following news of the report, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who oversees much of the administration of the occupied West Bank, insisted that Israel would not make any concessions to the Palestinians, referring to such a plan as “a fiction.”

3) Department of Defense

Philippine Navy Assumes Command of Counter-Piracy Task Force near Horn of Africa. On August 21, the Philippines assumed command of Combined Task Force (CTF) 151, an operational task force under the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) that is dedicated to combatting piracy and armed robbery at sea near the Horn of Africa. The CMF is a multinational naval partnership of 38 nations headquartered in Manama, Bahrain.

Pentagon Press Secretary Singh Denies Reports that Iranian Navy Intercepted US Ship. On August 21, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh denied Iranian state media reports that the Iranian Navy intercepted a US ship near the Strait of Hormuz. Press Secretary Singh also acknowledged Iranian-Russian cooperation to produce drones for the War in Ukraine but provided no updates on whether production had begun.

CENTCOM Commander Kurilla Visits Syrian Displaced Persons Camps. On August 21, CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla visited the al-Hol and al-Roj Displaced Persons Camps in northeast Syria. During the visits, General Kurilla interacted with camp administrators and residents “to observe first-hand the current humanitarian conditions, continued improvements in camp security, and repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration efforts to return residents to their countries of origin.” The al-Hol and al-Roj camps currently hold tens of thousands of people, some of whom are suspected to have ties to the so-called Islamic State (IS). General Kurilla also met with the Syrian Democratic Forces and discussed the ongoing campaign to defeat IS, as well as humanitarian efforts in the region.

General Vowell Assumes Command of Operation Inherent Resolve. On August 22, Major General Joel “JB” Vowell assumed command of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the military coalition to defeat the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla oversaw the transfer of authority ceremony, praising Major General Matthew McFarlane, the outgoing commander of CJTF-OIR, for his leadership.

US Fifth Fleet and Jordanian Armed Forces Complete “Infinite Defender” Bilateral Maritime Exercise. On August 23, the US 5th Fleet and the Jordanian Armed Forces completed “Infinite Defender 2023,” a two-week bilateral maritime exercise in Aqaba, Jordan focused on “maritime infrastructure protection, explosive ordinance disposal, and anti-terrorism force protection.” US and Jordanian forces also practiced humanitarian assistance and disaster response skills.

General Milley Underscores US Commitment to the Middle East. On August 24, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley underscored US commitment to the Middle East in an interview with Jordan’s Al-Mamlaka TV. Among other comments, General Milley said, “I can’t imagine that the United States would ever walk away from the Middle East. I think we’ll remain committed for many, many years and decades to come.” General Milley also addressed the US presence in Syria and Iraq, stating that US troops would remain in both countries at least until the so-called Islamic State is defeated.

Pentagon Responds to Reports of Saudi Arabia Killing of Migrants. On August 24, Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder responded to a Human Rights Watch report on mass killings of migrants at the Saudi-Yemeni border. Ryder acknowledged the report and stated that, “The US is not in any way training those border forces. They’re not a part of any of the assistance that we provide.” Ryder’s remarks follow comments made last week by an unnamed State Department spokesperson urging Saudi Arabia to “undertake a thorough and transparent investigation and also to meet their obligations under international law.”

4) United States Agency for International Development

Administrator Power Observes World Humanitarian Day. On August 19, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power marked World Humanitarian Day, paying tribute to the 22 humanitarian workers killed and the hundreds more injured in a suicide bombing outside the United Nations Iraq headquarters 20 years ago. Administrator Power praised humanitarian workers, who she said “are often among the first to respond to emergencies and rush assistance to those in need,” and discussed USAID efforts to assist people in Turkey, Syria, and Sudan, among other countries.