Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Hearings and Briefings

Great Power and Great Responsibility in US Arms Transfers. On October 13, the Stimson Center held a virtual discussion about the United States’ arms sales practices and, among other things, how Congress could act to prevent the United States from transferring dangerous weapons to unreliable partners. To provide a better understanding of lawmakers’ posture toward US arms sales to countries all over the world, including the Middle East and North Africa, the center hosted David Fite who serves as a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC).

Fite pointed out that members of Congress have learned that there is clearly “something missing” in the process through which the United States conducts arms sales. He argued that Washington must do more to ensure that US-made arms do not result in harm or death of innocent civilians in any conflict. As of now, there is no requirement under US law that the government consider what effect weapons sales and transfers will have on human rights, Fite explained, but members of the SFRC have introduced S. 4712 to make human rights a main consideration when Washington assesses arms sales. Fite said that because of the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen and the Trump Administration’s unfettered defense of the ruling family in Riyadh, members of Congress have realized there is a need for Congress to assume a greater role in deciding US arms export policy.

Rep. Schneider Continues Push to Protect Israel’s QMERep. Brad Schneider (Illinois), a centrist Democrat who is a staunch supporter of Israel, continued his push this week to ensure that Israel maintains a qualitative military edge (QME) over its neighbors, despite efforts to normalize relations in the region. Schneider and his House colleagues recently introduced H.R. 8494 that mandates that the United States consult Israeli officials when considering selling arms to other regional states. This, as one outlet put it, would give Israel a “veto” on US arms sales. Schneider gave an interview and participated in a virtual event (see Twitter coverage of his remarks here) to explain his efforts. Between both appearances, he made it clear he opposed the sale of sophisticated weaponry—like the F-35 fighter jets the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has requested—to any state in the region unless Israel essentially gives such a transaction a green light and says such a sale would not compromise its QME. More broadly, however, Schneider said he opposed the sale of the F-35 in particular because he feared it would spark an arms race among states in the region.

Sen. Sanders, Reps. Tlaib and Omar Try to Turn out Muslim Voters. Although Democratic nominee Vice President Joe Biden was not the preferred candidate of the Democratic Party’s more liberal voters, progressive members of Congress recently went all in to promote support for Biden. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) hosted a virtual town hall event this week with Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) to urge American Muslim voters—including those of Arab descent—to get out and vote. These voters, like Reps. Tlaib and Omar, strongly support Democrats and overwhelmingly supported Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primary over Biden. However, the trio were framing the message to American Muslims not necessarily as supporting Biden but as opposing President Donald Trump. Many American Muslim communities of Arab and non-Arab descent live in electorally crucial swing states like Michigan whose election outcomes, as 2016 proved, could hinge on just thousands of votes.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Extends National Emergency on Syria, Citing Turkey’s Activities. The White House announced this week that the president would be extending by a year the 2019 national emergency declaration on Syria. The declaration gives the administration, if it determines a person or entity is undermining stability in Syria, the ability to levy sanctions on them and block their travel to the United States. In particular, the United States blames Turkey for destabilizing Syria’s security and undermining the fight against the so-called Islamic State, due to its continued military action in northeastern Syria.

To make matters worse with Ankara, the Trump Administration offered another stinging rebuke of Turkey later in the week. The State Department issued an official response to Turkey’s decision to resume its survey activities in the eastern Mediterranean, accusing it of purposefully provoking fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization member state Greece.

2) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo Holds Talks with Kuwaiti, Saudi Officials. On October 8, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo phoned Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al Sabah to express his condolences for the recent passing of Kuwait’s longtime emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah. The two vowed to carry on the emir’s legacy by working bilaterally to help ensure regional stability and security.

On the topic of bilateral relations, Secretary Pompeo welcomed Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to kick off the first US-Saudi Strategic Dialogue. The pair held bilateral discussions on issues related to countering Iran, resolving the war in Yemen, and ensuring regional security before offering some public remarks at a press conference. Pompeo told the press that he hoped Saudi Arabia would follow Bahrain and the UAE in signing a normalization agreement with Israel.

As US Announces More Iran Sanctions, Elliott Abrams Goes to Europe for Iran Talks. The Trump Administration announced yet another round of sanctions on Iran, this time targeting 18 financial institutions in a bid to effectively blacklist Tehran from the global economy. The sanctions will take effect 45 days after the October 8 announcement and, despite the Trump Administration’s insistence that it has manufactured carve-outs to help facilitate the flow of humanitarian or medical goods, the fact is that companies are unlikely to expend the resources and time necessary to secure the waivers to continue trading with Iranian banks. As such, the new sanctions could push millions to the brink of poverty as companies end activities with financial institutions in Iran.

At the same time the sanctions were announced, the administration’s special representative for Iran, Elliott Abrams, was in Europe to discuss multilateral efforts regarding a host of issues related to Tehran with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and representatives of the European Union. In the past, Abrams insisted that the United States and its European partners remain in lockstep in their concerns over domestic repression in Iran and Tehran’s pursuit of conventional—and perhaps even nuclear—weapons. However, it is clear that London and the leaders of the European Union, including Berlin and Paris (which remain in the Iran nuclear deal), are not completely in sync with the administration’s effort to unilaterally sanction Iran.

Assistant Secretary Schenker Travels to Lebanon, Morocco. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker set out for Lebanon and Morocco this week. In Lebanon, Schenker helped initiate the first round of Israeli-Lebanese negotiations on establishing a maritime border. He is then expected to meet with Moroccan officials to discuss security and economic cooperation between the United States and Morocco. In addition to the stops in the Levant and North Africa, Schenker will travel to the United Kingdom to discuss developments in the Middle East.

US Citizens Released from Captivity in Yemen. The State Department announced this week that two US citizens—aid worker Sandra Loli and businessman Mikael Gidada—were released by Yemen’s Houthi rebels as part of what news outlets described as a prisoner swap. In addition, the remains of another US citizen, Bilal Fateen, who died in captivity were in the process of being repatriated. In exchange, the Houthis secured the return of some 240 Yemenis who had been unable to return to Yemen from Oman, as well as the procurement of medical supplies.

3) Department of Defense

US, Tunisian Defense Officials Discuss Bilateral Cooperation. On October 6 and 7, officials from the Pentagon and the Tunisian Ministry of Defense held virtual meetings to explore bilateral defense cooperation. According to the readout, the sides, among other things, “reviewed their efforts to enhance Tunisian military capacity to secure its borders, conduct joint operations, carry out effective counter-terrorism missions, and respond to crises.”

4) Department of the Treasury

Secretary Mnuchin Tentatively Scheduled to Visit Israel, UAE, Bahrain. According to at least one report, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is scheduled to visit Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain in the coming days. Traveling during a global pandemic can present unanticipated challenges, but should the secretary carry out his itinerary, he would most likely meet with officials of the three states to congratulate them for signing normalization agreements.