Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress 

1) Legislation

Senate Republicans Block Expedited Iron Dome Spending. Earlier this week, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) blocked an accelerated vote on the Iron Dome Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2022 (H.R. 5323). The senator’s block is the first prohibitive action from a congressional Republican regarding Iron Dome funding, which follows intense disapproval from progressive Democrats in September in the House of Representatives. Paul blocked the motion after Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) denied his amendment rescinding $6 billion in Afghanistan reconstruction funds. In a press release, Chairman Menendez condemned Paul’s amendment as a “dangerous” effort to “undermine U.S. national security.” The bill will now enter a lengthy period of debate in the Senate before a vote. In a related development, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) agreed to support the legislation in the Senate in exchange for additional humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in Gaza.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) introduced H.R. 5323 to the House of Representatives at the end of September, where it passed by an overwhelming majority after a group of progressive Democrats forced the removal of Iron Dome funding from the stopgap spending bill, H.R. 5305. H.R. 5323 provides an additional $1 billion in funding for Israel’s short-range, anti-rocket defense system.

Risch and McCaul Oppose Rehabilitating Assad. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ ranking member, Michael McCaul (R-Texas), issued a statement condemning some US partners in the Arab League for trying to normalize relations with the Assad regime. The statement said that this normalization will only worsen destabilization in the region. 

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Conservatives Warn against Strengthening Relations with Syria. As US allies normalize relations with Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime, congressional Republicans Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Jim Risch (R-Idaho) released a statement regarding the immorality of these actions. They criticized US partners—specifically members of the League of Arab States—who are “losing their resolve to punish Assad by looking to normalize relations.” Additionally, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) and Brendan Boyle (D-Pennsylvania), co-chairs of the Friends of a Free, Stable and Democratic Syria Caucus, released a statement on October 7th reaffirming the caucus’s disapproval of normalizing relations with Assad. These statements come in the wake of increased international cooperation with Syria, particularly regarding the recent deal to pipe Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria, causing Jordan to reopen its borders with Syria and the countries’ leaders to resume communication.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President on the Situation in Syria. This week, President Joe Biden placed a continuation of a National Emergency status as declared under President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13894 in October 2019, due to the threat Syria posed to US national security and foreign policy. Initially, the executive order was set to expire later this month. However, according to section 202(d) of the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1622[d]), President Biden extended the order for another year.

In the press release, Biden pointed to Turkey’s offensive campaigns in northeastern Syria as undermining the US campaign to defeat the so-called Islamic State. US-Turkey relations have become more tense since President Biden assumed office in January. The countries’ weakened unilateral cooperation was increasingly evident at the UN General Assembly last September, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly emphasized his disagreements with Biden.

NSA Sullivan Leads Meeting with US-Israel Strategic Group. President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan led a meeting of US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group at the White House on October 5th, according to a statement from National Security Council Spokesperson Emily Horne. Among those in attendance were Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata and a senior Israeli interagency delegation. The meeting focused on the United States’ commitment to Israeli national security and the mitigation of nuclear proliferation in Iran. This meeting comes on the heels of the House passing the Iron Dome Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2022 (H.R. 5323), which is currently under debate in the Senate. Hulata’s visit came a week after Sullivan visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.

Biden Appoints Envoy to Lebanon-Israel Maritime Talks. President Joe Biden appointed Amos Hochstein as special envoy to oversee negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on their maritime border in the Mediterranean. Hochstein will travel to the region later in October.

2) Department of State

Joint Statement Regarding Iraqi Elections. The State Department released a statement with the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom on  October 6th regarding Iraq’s early elections. In the joint statement, the governments emphasized the importance of free and fair elections to the reform of the Iraqi government and the human rights of its citizens. In a tweet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the international community’s commitment “to bolster the integrity of the election.”

Blinken Issues Statement on Khashoggi Murder. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement on October 2nd on the third anniversary of the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The statement recommitted the United States “to advocating for freedom of expression and the protection of journalists, activists, and dissidents everywhere.”

Blinken Talks with Qatar’s Foreign Minister. On October 5th, Secretary Blinken spoke by phone with Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and again expressed his appreciation for Qatar’s help with the Afghanistan evacuation. The two also discussed delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

State Department Condemns Houthi Attack in Yemen. The Department of State condemned an October 3rd attack by Yemen’s Houthi insurgents on a civilian area in Marib in which two children were killed and scores were injured. The United States is engaged in a diplomatic effort to arrive at a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the country.

Special Envoy Feltman Travels to Sudan. Jeffrey Feltman, Special US Envoy for the Horn of Africa, visited Sudan between September 28th and October 1st where he met with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan. Feltman expressed the US government’s support for Sudan’s transition to democracy and urged all stakeholders to adhere to the 2019 Constitutional Declaration. His visit came after elements in the military attempted to topple the current coalition government.

US Opens Its Pavilion at Dubai Expo. The United States announced the opening on October 1st of its pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020 (which was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic). It will remain open for six months and will contribute to the expo’s themes of “climate and biodiversity, space, urban and rural development, tolerance and inclusivity, knowledge and learning, travel and connectivity, global goals, health and wellness, food and agriculture, and water.”

State Department Criticizes Saudi Appellate Court Decision. The Department of State issued a statement expressing its disappointment in a Saudi Arabian appellate court’s upholding of a 20-year prison sentence for a Saudi activist and aid worker, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan. He was originally identified by two Twitter employees spying for Saudi Arabia on critics of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) also criticized the sentence, tweeting that “Saudi Arabia’s assault on the freedom of expression & pattern of human rights abuses must be condemned by all freedom-loving people.”

US Welcomes Appointment of Western Sahara Envoy. Secretary Blinken welcomed the appointment of Staffan de Mistura as the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy to Western Sahara and pledged US help in his political mission of conflict resolution in the territory.

Amr Concludes a Visit to Israel and Palestine. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr just concluded a four-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories, where he met with Israeli and Palestinian officials and Palestinian civil society activists. Among the concerns he discussed with officials were security, human rights, economic development, and humanitarian relief for Gaza.

US Welcomes Iran-Saudi Arabia Talks. The United States responded positively to the announcement of Iranian-Saudi direct talks that began in September. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran and Iraq at the Department of State, Jennifer Gavito, said that the United States welcomes “direct talks that lead to greater peace and stability in the region.”

3) Department of Defense 

DoD Official Affirms Relations with ME Partners. Mara Karlin, the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, spoke at a Middle East Institute Defense Leadership Series webinar in which she affirmed the importance of military partnerships with Middle Eastern states “to counter common threats.” She also stated that the United States is working on developing integrated air and missile defense systems with the Gulf countries.

Fifth Fleet Denies Iranian Report. The spokesperson for the Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet has denied an Iranian report that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps speedboats intercepted a US Navy ship in the Gulf.

4) Department of Justice

FBI Charges IS Media Figure and Militant. Mohammed Khalifa, a Saudi-born Canadian citizen, was brought into FBI custody and transferred to the Eastern District of Virginia, where a criminal complaint against him was unsealed on Saturday, October 2nd, according to a Department of Justice press release. Khalifa, also known as Abu Ridwan Al-Kanadi and Abu Muthanna Al-Muhajir, is a Saudi-born Canadian citizen; he was initially captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces in January 2019 and later transferred to FBI custody. In addition to being a fighter in Syria, Khalifa was a lead translator and English narrator of Islamic State (IS) recruiting materials. With charges of conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, resulting in death, Khalifa faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.