Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Respond to Biden Administration’s MBS Immunity Decision. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have expressed mixed responses over the Biden administration’s support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receiving diplomatic immunity in a US civil court case over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. On November 21, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) said that the administration’s decision undermines accountability for MBS, urging President Biden to “hold MBS accountable” and to reexamine the US-Saudi relationship. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) offered similar remarks, saying that the administration has turned its back on Biden’s campaign promises. Representative Gregory Meeks (D-New York), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that he was “disappointed” by the decision but that he understood the State Department’s upholding legal precedent. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), speaking about said legal precedent, agreed with the administration’s decision, saying, “It would be a major break and another effort in the campaign to alienate and ostracize Saudi Arabia not to recognize this traditional kind of immunity.” Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, reportedly agreed with this assessment.

Senator Menendez Condemns Iranian Attacks on Protesters in Kurdish Region. On November 21, Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned recent reports that Iranian forces are deploying military tactics against protesters in Mahabad and other Kurdish majority cities. Menendez called the actions “ruthless and barbaric,” comparing them to the suppression of protests in Syria.

Democratic Lawmakers Urge Defense Department to Reinvestigate Civilian Casualties. On November 17, Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey), Jason Crow (D-Colorado), and Sara Jacobs (D-California), along with Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III expressing their concern that the Department of Defense does not plan to reinvestigate past cases of civilian harm as part of the new Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP). In the letter, the lawmakers highlight cases of civilian deaths following US-led airstrikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq between 2013 and 2019, requesting that the Department of Defense review these cases to see if they meet the requirements for providing funding to civilian victims and survivors, funding that Congress has authorized the DoD to issue. The lawmakers requested that the DoD respond to their letter with a briefing on these issues by December 17, 2022.

Senator Van Hollen Calls on the Biden Administration to Condemn Turkish Bombings in Syria. On November 20, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) urged the Biden administration to “speak out forcefully” against a Turkish airstrike campaign in Syria that targeted the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), evidently in retaliation for last week’s terrorist attack in Istanbul. Van Hollen noted that the SDF has worked closely with the US military in the campaign against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

Representative McCarthy Threatens to Remove Representative Omar from HFAC over Israel Criticism. Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-California), who may become speaker of the House in January, said that he would use his power to remove Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) because of her past criticism of Israel, which McCarthy called “anti-Semitic.” Omar responded, arguing that McCarthy’s comments incite hatred against her and other Somali Americans, and stating, “I will not stop fighting for more equitable, more just and more humane policies.”

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

President Biden Elevates US Diplomatic Representative to Palestine. President Biden promoted US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr to a new position as US Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs. In his new role, Amr will continue his work with the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in Washington while increasing his coordination with the US Embassy in Jerusalem’s Office of Palestinian Affairs. A senior US official said that the creation of this new role serves to “strengthen the US-Palestinian relationship,” adding that the Biden administration is still committed to reopening the US Consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Biden Administration Condemns Attacks in Jerusalem. On November 23, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre condemned two attacks in Jerusalem that claimed the life of one teenager and injured eighteen other people. In a statement, Jean-Pierre reaffirmed US support for Israel’s security, calling the administration’s commitment “ironclad and unbreakable.” Later that same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also condemned the attacks, and US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides confirmed that two US citizens were among those injured.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Meets with Israeli Army Chief of Staff. On November 21, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Avi Kohavi, Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces. The two discussed regional security issues, particularly the threat posed by Iran, and violence in the West Bank. Sullivan also reaffirmed US commitment to the US-Israel partnership and the pursuit of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

2) State Department

Secretary Blinken Meets with Qatari Leaders. On November 22, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha to discuss the strategic partnership between the United States and Qatar and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Shortly after, the two leaders opened the fifth session of the US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, where Blinken thanked Qatar for warming relations with Israel, collaborating on the transport of evacuees from Afghanistan, and aiding US military efforts in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Alongside the dialogue, Blinken signed a letter of intent with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani outlining plans to make the World Cup more accessible to people with disabilities, to increase knowledge sharing for cases of human trafficking, and to utilize fair recruitment practices to protect migrant workers.

Secretary Blinken Says There Are no Plans for MBS to Visit Washington. On November 22, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the Biden administration has “no plans” to host Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Washington anytime soon. Blinken’s comments come amid tensions between President Biden and MBS over the latter’s role in the October 2022 OPEC+ production cut. Blinken said that the administration’s review of the US-Saudi relationship is “ongoing,” but defended a recent decision to push for MBS to receive diplomatic immunity in a US-civil court case over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, saying, “The opinion that we provided does not speak in any way to the merits of the case nor the current status of the bilateral relationship.”

State Department Condemns Violence in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. On November 21, the State Department issued a statement condemning the recent loss of civilian lives in Syria and Turkey and calling for de-escalation. The statement also denounced “uncoordinated military action in Iraq that violates Iraq’s sovereignty.” On November 23, the State Department issued an additional statement urging de-escalation in northern Syria and expressing concern that current violence could undermine the fight against the so-called Islamic State. This condemnation follows a November 22 letter from Ilhan Ahmed, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ political arm, to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging the United States to speak out against a potential Turkish ground invasion into Syria targeting the US-allied militia.

State Department Condemns Iranian Attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan Region. On November 22, the State Department issued a statement condemning Iranian attacks in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region between November 20 and 22, calling them “brazen violations of Iraq’s territorial integrity.”

US Yemen Envoy Travels to Oman and Saudi Arabia. On November 27, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to Oman and Saudi Arabia to participate in ongoing peace efforts in Yemen. In an announcement of Lenderking’s trip, the State Department called on the Houthis to cease their attacks on Yemen’s ports, asking them to seize the opportunity for peace and to cooperate with the United Nations.

US Ambassador to Yemen Calls on Houthis to Cease International Maritime Threats. Following a visit to Aden, US Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Fagin urged the Houthis to stop attacking Yemeni ports and threatening international maritime trade. He also encouraged Houthi leaders to “return to the negotiating table, end the devastating war, and play a constructive role in achieving a comprehensive political settlement negotiated by Yemenis.” Fagin’s comments follow a reported Houthi drone attack on al-Dhaba port on November 21.

State Department Responds to UNHRC Iran Session. On November 24, the State Department released a statement regarding a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Special Session on Iran, expressing support for protesters in Iran and reiterating calls for the Iranian government to end its violent crackdowns on peaceful protests. In the statement, Secretary Blinken said that a fact-finding mission established during the session will bring accountability for Iranian officials involved in human rights violations.

US Signs $845 Million Agreement with Jordan. On November 27, the United States and Jordan signed an agreement for a cash transfer of $845 million in US aid, development, and security assistance, which represents the final transfer in a five-year agreement from 2018. The package must be approved by Congress, and US Ambassador to Jordan Henry Wooster suggested that Congress may choose to increase the amount of aid beyond this sum.

State Department Commemorates Lebanese National Day. On November 22, the State Department issued a statement commemorating Lebanon’s Independence Day and recognizing the resilience of the Lebanese people in the face of challenges.

3) Department of Defense

US Urges De-Escalation of Turkish Attacks in Syria. On November 22, US Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS), called for a de-escalation in Syria following Turkish airstrikes targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-supported Kurdish militia. The statement said that these strikes threaten civilians and disrupt the common goal of defeating IS. On November 23, Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar called on the United States to cut ties with the SDF, while a State Department official said that the United States has communicated “serious concerns” to Turkey. The same day, the Department of Defense condemned the violence as well, calling for de-escalation while also recognizing Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns.”

US Navy Investigation Confirms Iranian Drone Struck Israeli-Owned Tanker. On November 22, the US Navy confirmed that an Iranian drone was responsible for last week’s strike on an oil tanker linked to a firm owned by Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer. Commander of US Naval Forces Central Command Vice Admiral Brad Cooper condemned the attack, saying, “The Iranian attack on a commercial tanker transiting international waters was deliberate, flagrant and dangerous, endangering the lives of the ship’s crew and destabilizing maritime security in the Middle East.”

CENTCOM Verifies Reports of Rocket Attacks on US Base in Syria. On November 25, US Central Command confirmed that two rockets were fired at coalition forces near a US base in al-Shaddadi, Syria. A third, unfired rocket was also found near the launch site. The attacks did not cause any injuries, deaths, or property damage.

US and UAE Hold Joint Military Dialogue. On November 21, a US delegation led by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl traveled to the United Arab Emirates for an annual Joint Military Dialogue between the US and the UAE. Topics discussed included bilateral defense and regional security issues, counterterrorism, maritime security, and air and missile defense.

Israeli National Security Advisor Visits US 5th Fleet. On November 20, an Israeli defense delegation led by Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata visited the United States’ 5th Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain. The delegation met with US National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and Vice Admiral Brad Cooper to discuss regional maritime partnerships and technological innovation.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Sanctions Iranian Officials Involved in Protest Crackdowns in Kurdish Region. On November 23, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions on three Iranian security officials for their role in Iran’s crackdown on protesters in the Kurdish cities of Sanandaj and Mahabad in northwestern Iran. The sanctions target the governor of Sanandaj, a law enforcement commander in Sanandaj, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander who oversees Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province, where Mahabad is located.

5) US Commission on International Religious Freedom

USCIRF Releases Report on Religious Freedom in Syria. On November 25, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report on religious freedom in Syria under the governance of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate that holds power in the country’s northwest region. The report found that although HTS has cut ties with al-Qaeda and tried to rehabilitate its image as a legitimate governing authority, the Salafi ideology it espouses “puts northwest Syria’s religiously diverse population at continued risk.” HTS has arbitrarily detained religious minorities, instituted blasphemy laws and religious dress codes, and told educators to block married female students from attending public schools and universities.