Congressional Update – Week Ending September 28, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act. On September 25, the House voted to approve an amendment that further squeezes Lebanese Hezbollah by constraining its access to the international financial system. S. 1595 amends a 2015 law that targeted the group by levying more sanctions and adding criteria by which Hezbollah and its members could be subject to sanctions. The Senate passed the bill last year, so now it will head to the president’s desk for his signature.

Preventing Iranian Destabilization of Iraq Act. This week the House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced H.R. 4591, as amended, which aims to impose sanctions on any foreign actor that carries out violent acts in Iraq to destabilize the already fragile political situation. The proposed sanctions in this bill are the same as those already placed against many of the Iranians whom this bill intends to punish; they include blocking access to assets in US jurisdiction, revoking visas and deporting those sanctioned, and barring entry into the United States. This was just one of many actions taken this week that targets Tehran. In the Senate, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) also introduced legislation that would impose more sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In the House, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), citing Iran as the primary threat, proposed a concurrent resolution—which is not legally binding, even if adopted by both chambers—that would call on the president to join a military alliance of “extended deterrence” with Israel.

Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Act. Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) introduced H.R. 6018, which would require the secretaries of the State and Defense Departments to work with partners in the Maghreb and Sahel to form a counterterrorism partnership in the same name as the bill. As the so-called Islamic State (IS) loses land in the Levant, attention is turning toward North Africa and the Sahel region, where instability and ungoverned land have allowed terrorist groups to consolidate power. Some of Washington’s most reliable counterterrorism partners in the Arab world are in North Africa and every fiscal year’s budget reflects that, providing millions in security aid for states like Tunisia and Morocco. This bill would extend that effort, helping Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to work with their neighbors south of the Sahara to protect borders and root out terrorist groups.

Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) agreed to pass H.R. 1677, as amended, which seeks to stop “the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people” and hold human rights violators responsible for their actions. The amended version tries to accomplish the same thing as the version previously passed by the House; however, SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) had concerns with that version so the SFRC language accounts for his concerns while still authorizing sanctions and calling for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian war.

Sanctioning the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act. The SFRC also adopted an amended version of S. 3257, which levies sanctions against any person suspected of using civilians as human shields. The House passed a bill earlier this year singling out Palestinian Hamas for this very purpose, but the newest bill would apply to any group that uses civilians as human shields and it specifically targets Hamas and Hezbollah.

Calling for the Global Repeal of Blasphemy, Heresy, and Apostasy Laws. Senators James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) offered S. Res. 647 this week that aims to express the sense of the Senate that the president and secretary of state should make repealing laws prohibiting blasphemy, apostasy, and heresy a higher priority. South Asian states like Pakistan and Bangladesh tend to get the most attention with draconian punishments of those who break their anti-blasphemy laws, but the resolution states that 14 countries in the Middle East and North Africa also have similar laws. While this White House would be very willing to put pressure on Iran for laws that violate religious freedom, it has appeared more reluctant about raising concerns with states like Saudi Arabia that have penalties for blasphemy, apostasy, and heresy, ones that rival Pakistan in their harshness. The resolution was referred to the SFRC for consideration.

Reporting Requirements for Riyadh’s Ability to Enrich Nuclear Fuel. Reps. Bradley Schneider (D-Illinois) and Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) introduced H.R. 6894, setting out reporting requirements on Saudi Arabia’s ability to obtain nuclear fuel enrichment capabilities. There is growing concern among lawmakers that the demise of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) will prompt the Saudis to pursue their own nuclear program more quickly—though so far, the leaders in Riyadh have only sought nuclear capabilities for energy purposes. However, the current administration seems willing to agree to a cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia on terms worse than those agreed to with the United Arab Emirates; this is the framework dubbed the “gold standard.” The Saudis have repeatedly said they should be able to enjoy unlimited freedom to enrich nuclear fuel—a key component of developing nuclear weapons—but longstanding US policy has maintained that the Middle East be completely free of nuclear weapons—with the notable exception of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. This bill would be the first step in Congress’s pursuit of curbing a nuclear Saudi Arabia. In the Senate, reports are circulating that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) wants to pass a unanimous resolution calling on the administration to agree to nothing less than the “gold standard,” but a handful of Republicans oppose that plan, illustrating the reluctance of Congress to push back against this administration’s relationship with Riyadh.

Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act. On September 26, Democratic Senators Tom Udall (New Mexico), Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Dianne Feinstein (California), Chris Murphy (Connecticut), Martin Heinrich (New Mexico), Richard Durbin (Illinois), Jeff Merkley, and Vermont’s Independent Senator, Bernie Sanders, introduced S. 3517, which would bar the Trump Administration from using funds to wage war against Iran. Like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) last week, the senators fear that President Trump’s and his officials’ increasingly belligerent rhetoric toward Tehran is a sign that this White House seeks to wage war against Iran.

War Powers Resolution. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and 30 of his House colleagues introduced H. Con. Res. 138, invoking the War Powers Resolution in order to force a vote on US involvement in the war in Yemen. Khanna has long championed Washington’s withdrawal from supporting the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, but every vote to effect such a change has come up short. However, the administration’s continued support for Riyadh and its coalition allies and reluctance to hold them responsible for possible war crimes in Yemen have turned more and more lawmakers against US involvement. Though it is still unclear if the majorities in both chambers are ready to force the administration’s hand regarding US policy toward Yemen, it is important for lawmakers to be on the record about whether or not they support US involvement in Riyadh’s disastrous war.

2) Hearings

Countering Iranian Proxies in Iraq. On September 26, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade held a hearing dedicated to understanding the best policies for Washington to effectively undermine the influence of Iranian proxy militias in Iraq. The subcommittee heard testimonies from Benham Ben Taleblu, Michael Pregent, Kimberly Kagan, and Barbara Leaf. While Taleblu and Pregent gave briefs on the history of Iranian proxy strategies and the key proxy forces operating in Iraq, the crux of the hearing focused on a debate on whether to designate some of these Iraqi groups—some of which won seats in parliament—as terrorist organizations and to sanction them.

Taleblu and Pregent came out in favor of some combination of designation and sanctions, whereas Kagan and Leaf, while not rejecting the idea outright, urged Congress to be more methodical with mandating sanctions, thus allowing the Trump Administration to use the threat of sanctions as leverage over the yet-to-be formed Iraqi government. There is a piece of legislation on the move in Congress addressing the very issues discussed during the hearing and it appears that lawmakers might be reluctant to tie the administration’s hands when dealing with a country as unstable as Iraq.

US Policy Toward Syria. This week, two House committees held hearings to explore US policy toward Syria. On September 26 and 27, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee each held separate hearings to assess current US strategy in war-torn Syria. The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee’s US Strategy in Syria hearing focused on US military efforts to combat the threat of IS within Syria. The witnesses included Robert Story Karem, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Department of Defense, and Brigadier General Scott F. Benedict, Deputy Director J5 and Middle East (Strategic Plans and Policy) Joint Staff. Karem provided an update on US military operations in Syria and the country’s cooperation with coalition partners to recapture the remaining IS-held territory. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) probed the officials extensively about actual US policy in Syria, as Pentagon officials say the military will remain until the last pockets of IS are cleared. On the other hand, National Security Advisor John Bolton recently stated that troops would remain until Iran leaves Syrian territory. With the latter statement, lawmakers asked the officials about the military’s authorities to remain in Syria indefinitely, noting that neither the 2001 or 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force cover Syria, thereby raising concerns of “mission creep.”

The House subcommittee held a hearing, US Policy Toward Syria (Part 1), to obtain testimonies on the latest developments in Syria and to receive recommendations for a more coherent strategy there. The subcommittee hosted Hanin Ghaddar of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Nicholas Heras of the Center for New American Security, and Mona Yacoubian of the US Institute of Peace. The hearing touched on a number of policy issues, including the involvement of Iran and Russia in the future of Syria; the need for exposing the Bashar al-Assad regime for its potential war crimes; and the implementation of economic sanctions on Lebanese Hezbollah to place more pressure on the group to end its destabilizing presence in Syria. Specific policy recommendations focused on the traditional “3D” approach—utilizing US defense, diplomacy, and development capabilities to stabilize Syria—and formulating a long-term counterterrorism strategy to uproot the likes of al-Qaeda and IS. As for addressing the Iranian and Russian presence in Syria that supports the Assad regime, the witnesses recommended that Washington increase pressure on Russia to quell Assad’s atrocities and constrain the regime’s current military actions. In answering a question from the committee about the conditions for the return of Syrian refugees, Ghaddar recommended that removing Bashar al-Assad would be the best policy to allow refugees to feel safe and return to their homes.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Menendez, Former Secretary of State Albright Advocate for Refugees. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote a joint op-ed this week decrying the Trump Administration’s decision to limit the maximum number of refugees the United States would resettle in its borders. At a time when conflicts in Syria, Yemen, the Sahel region of Africa, and elsewhere are producing hundreds of thousands of refugees, the current administration has reduced the refugee ceiling to historic lows. Menendez, who is the son of Cuban immigrants who fled Cuba, and Albright, a refugee herself, wrote that the decision reduces Washington’s influence abroad and risks tarring the United States’ reputation as a force for good globally. The refugee cap is a salient issue for lawmakers, many of whom represent constituencies with large refugee populations. In this regard, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia) introduced a bill that would allow Congress to set the minimum number of refugees that the United States would admit every fiscal year.

Senate, House Members Call on Netanyahu Not to Demolish Khan al-Ahmar. On September 26, Senators Feinstein and Sanders released a joint statement with House members Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) and John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky) calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to put a stay on the demolition of the West Bank village Khan al-Ahmar. The four lawmakers all sent letters to Netanyahu in the past, but now that the Israeli judicial system has signed off on the demolition and the Israel Defense Forces have prepared to force Khan al-Ahmar residents out of their homes, the four lawmakers are calling on the prime minister to intervene and stop the destruction of the village.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump and Top Officials Attend United Nations General Assembly. President Donald Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and top cabinet officials Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley were in New York City for the 73rd annual UN General Assembly meeting. President Trump made his appearance before some 140 world leaders on September 25 and gave a bombastic speech regarding US sovereignty, one that was disdainful of the very international order the United Nations represents. Trump also chaired the UN Security Council meeting this week, using the gavel to criticize Iran.

Pompeo and Bolton attended an anti-Iran event Tuesday evening, reiterating—and at times exceeding—President Trump’s negative sentiments about Iran. The summit was hosted by the anti-Iran group “United Against Nuclear Iran.” Pompeo and Bolton offered their usual policy perspectives, but Bolton, as mentioned above, said that US troops would remain in Syria until Iran’s presence there had ended.

2) State Department

Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan Meets with Arab Leaders. While Secretary Pompeo was busy holding the higher profile meetings, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan held meetings with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Sudan and with Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Iran Action Group Releases Outlaw Report on Tehran. The Iran Action Group released a lengthy report detailing the scope of Iran’s malign behavior both at home and in the broader Middle East. Additionally, Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook gave a briefing regarding Iran. Hook provided updates on his work and added his voice to the administration’s verbal attacks against Tehran at the annual gathering of the United Nations.

Pompeo Talks Syria, Libya, Yemen, and the GCC. Throughout the week in New York, Pompeo was busy as the nation’s top diplomat. In addition to the aforementioned Iran summit, Pompeo hosted or participated in the P5+1 Ministerial meeting, where leaders discussed the situations in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. He also hosted a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)+2 Ministerial with his counterparts from the Gulf, Egypt, and Jordan.

Ambassador Jeffrey Gives Briefing on Syria. The State Department’s US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffrey, gave a briefing about US strategy toward Syria and discussed the conclusions of a small group meeting regarding the situation there. After the meeting, the United States and its counterparts released statements calling for a peaceful negotiated political settlement to the ongoing war as well as raising concerns about the Assad regime’s arbitrary detentions and possible human rights abuses.