Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

SECURE F-35 Exports Act. On October 20, Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) introduced S. 4814 (see text here) in an effort to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) by limiting states in the region that can secure the vaunted F-35 fighter jet. The legislation lays out a host of reporting requirements a president must certify to approve a sale of F-35s to countries in the region, including verifying to Congress that the sale would not jeopardize Israel’s QME and undermine or threaten US national security interests. In addition, the recipient country must also agree that it will not use the planes to conduct operations “inimical to the security of Israel.” Interestingly, the bill also dictates that for any certification to be issued, this and all future administrations must determine that the recipient country has not furnished US-made weapons—or those of any origin—to designated terrorist organizations or armed militias fighting US or Israeli partners or allies. This phrasing is very particular and is perhaps intended to signal dissatisfaction with potential F-35 sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has been accused of providing arms—including US-made weapons—to militias and terrorist groups in Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere.

Condemning Turkey’s Attacks on US Forces and Allies. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) introduced H. Res. 1195 criticizing Turkey for, among other things, its ongoing involvement in conflicts in Libya and Syria. Gabbard’s resolution goes on to condemn Ankara for allegedly supporting terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State and for its continued aggressive posture toward US partners in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California) introduced H.R. 8641 (see text here), named after the late Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in an effort to broaden US support for journalists against gross abuse of human rights. The legislation expands US government reporting requirements on violations of human rights to ensure that annual reports also include abuses perpetrated specifically against journalists. In addition, the bill requires that a president levy sanctions against individuals responsible for ordering abuses of human rights against journalists, including blocking property in US jurisdictions and revoking and prohibiting the issuance of travel visas to the United States. Lastly, Schiff’s bill prohibits the United States from providing foreign or military assistance to state institutions that are led by individuals found to have commissioned human rights abuses against journalists.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Fifty-six Members of Congress Write to Sisi on Political Prisoners. Fifty-five congressional Democrats and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont), according to a press release, sent a letter to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi this week calling on Cairo to unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience held in jails around the country. In the letter, lawmakers expressed their concerns about the Sisi regime’s practice of jailing journalists, political activists, and human rights defenders and urged the government to release these prisoners “before their wrongful imprisonment becomes a death sentence due to the coronavirus pandemic.”

House Democrats Call on US to Pull out of Saudi-led G20 Meeting. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) and her House colleagues sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the administration to withdraw from participating in the next G20 summit, which will be hosted by Saudi Arabia. The members told the secretary that the kingdom is unfit to hold the meeting and that, if the United States were to attend the summit, Riyadh must first tell the truth about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, release political prisoners and rights activists, loosen restrictions on the press, embrace religious freedom, end the war in Yemen, stop intervening against democracy movements in the region, reduce its impact on climate change, and reform its kafala labor practices.

Lawmakers Unleash Criticism on Turkey. Multiple House lawmakers are raising the alarm about ongoing Turkish activity that they say undermines security and stability in the Middle East and among North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. First, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) released a statement criticizing Ankara for its recent decision to test the S-400 missile defense system it acquired from Russia. According to US law, Turkey is supposed to be subject to sanctions for purchasing and testing equipment that NATO, to which Turkey belongs, views as a security threat. Turkey’s use of the S-400 system, combined with its ongoing destabilizing activities in places like Libya and Syria, prompted Engel and Rep. Bill Keating (D-Massachusetts) to write to Secretary Pompeo and urge him to take greater actions—including implementing mandated sanctions—to spur a change in Ankara’s behavior.

The Cost of Trump’s Foreign Policy: Damage and Consequences for US and Global Security. Senator Bob Menendez commissioned a report to examine the position the United States is in after nearly four years of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Completed by the staff representing the Democratic minority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the report outlines the numerous ways these officials believe the Trump Administration has hampered US relations and US policy abroad. On US Middle East policy, it states that President Trump’s decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, his unwillingness to push for greater democracy and human rights protections in the region, and his cozy relationships with illiberal and autocratic leaders of countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have hurt the United States and its influence in the region and left it isolated at a time when it needs partners to confront larger problems. The study also offers a host of policy recommendations that one can expect the Democratic Party to embrace should it win control of the White House and/or the US Senate after the November elections. This will have serious consequences for the countries named in the report, particularly Saudi Arabia.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

NSA O’Brien Brokers Sit-Down with Lebanon Spy Chief. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien was busy this week marketing President Trump’s foreign policy as successful while also trying to enlist Lebanon in US efforts to secure the release of US prisoners in Syria. O’Brien and other administration officials—including Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel—hosted Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security, reportedly at O’Brien’s invitation. Because of his extensive personal ties with leaders of Hezbollah in Lebanon and to power brokers in Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Ibrahim is viewed by many in Washington as a problematic actor; at the same time, others consider him as a crucial interlocutor on issues related to hostage negotiations. Indeed, it appears O’Brien’s intention was to enlist Ibrahim’s help in securing the release of Americans held in Syria, particularly the Marine veteran and journalist Austin Tice. This comes after Kash Patel, a deputy assistant at the White House, reportedly traveled to Syria to seek information about Tice’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, Abbas Ibrahim tested positive for COVID-19 after his visit with US officials, forcing O’Brien and others to go into quarantine because of their exposure.

2) Department of State

United States Set to Delist Sudan as State Sponsor of Terrorism. The Trump Administration is moving forward with plans to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The announcement comes after Khartoum agreed to pay $335 million in compensation to the victims of terrorist attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. Once no longer blacklisted, Sudan will be eligible for international financial assistance and the Trump Administration vowed to provide millions in aid when Sudan pays the settlement. However, this payment could be complicated by Congress. Lawmakers would have to use the appropriations process to pass substantial amounts of aid to Khartoum; in addition, a majority is required of both chambers to pass a law shielding Sudan from future terrorist-related lawsuits, as the country is seeking. Some, like Senator Bob Menendez, are putting the breaks on that plan, signaling there is resistance to passing any such bill unless Sudan also compensates victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (in which Sudan has been deemed complicit). The US decision also appears to be timed to ensure that Sudan normalizes relations with Israel, a move that, despite some congressional resistance to providing immediate aid, would see Khartoum securing millions in assistance from the UAE.

Secretary Pompeo Holds Talks for Bilateral Relations with UAE, Lebanese OfficialsSecretary Pompeo and Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan held a virtual launch of the US-UAE Joint Strategic Dialogue this week, where multiple US and Emirati officials held meetings to further strengthen relations between the two countries. In addition to Pompeo’s meeting with the foreign minister, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross had a virtual conversation with Emirati officials on expanding commercial ties between the two countries. The launch of the US-UAE Joint Strategic Dialogue comes on the heels of the recent US-Saudi dialogue, which resulted in the issuing of a joint statement of agreement to continue bilateral cooperation in the fields of intelligence, economics, defense, and cybersecurity.

Secretary Pompeo later phoned Lebanese President Michel Aoun to discuss developments in Lebanon and to show his support for the start of Lebanese-Israeli maritime border negotiations.

State Department Announces New Sanctions, Warns of More for Iran Arms Sales. This week, the State Department announced a new round of sanctions, this time targeting China and Hong Kong-based companies and an al-Qaeda financier. The Chinese entities are accused of supporting Iranian shipping lines, which the department says are responsible for transporting items critical to Iran’s ballistic missile program. As for the latter set of sanctions, the State Department announced it designated Ahmed Luqman Talib and his Australia-based company for sanctions due to his role in providing financial support to al-Qaeda.

While these sanctions are definite, Secretary Pompeo also took time to threaten the entire international community with sanctions, now that the UN arms embargo on Iran has expired. Pompeo told companies around the globe that despite the expiration—and the international communities’ unwillingness to engage with Washington’s unilateral sanctions regime—the United States would continue its policy and will sanction any company that facilitates the sale of arms to Tehran.

3) Department of the Treasury

Secretary Mnuchin Leads Delegation to Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the White House’s Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz led a delegation of officials to Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE this week to continue building on the agreements known as the Abraham Accords. The United States, the UAE, and Israel agreed to create a joint investment fund to encourage even greater regional cooperation.

4) Department of Justice

DOJ Commandeers Iraqi Militia Website, Warns of Iran Election Interference. The Department of Justice and the broader intelligence community took cyber action this week against an Iran-backed Iraqi militia at the same time that this militia and the US intelligence chief warned of Iranian efforts to sow chaos in US elections. The department, which had originally seized domain names in August, announced the seizure of two additional web domains for Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia designated as a terrorist group.

Concurrently, the Department of Justice’s investigatory arm—the FBI—announced alongside the Director of National Intelligence that the United States had reason to believe Iran had gathered voter files—publicly available collections of US voter registrations held by individual states—and was using the information to spam voters. The effort, according to the administration, is intended to harm President Trump’s reelection chances and generally undermine US voters’ faith in the electoral process.

III. Judicial Branch

Hatice Cengiz, Fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, Sues MbS in US CourtThe fiancée of the late Jamal Khashoggi filed a lawsuit in Washington, DC this week, in conjunction with Khashoggi’s rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now. The suit seeks to hold responsible Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and over 20 others for Khashoggi’s murder. There are a host of legal questions about the viability of such a lawsuit, but the plaintiffs made it clear that they want the court to help hold MbS responsible for personally ordering Khashoggi’s murder.