Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Hearings and Briefings

House of Representatives Passes Resolution Condemning Iran’s Persecution of Its Bahai Minority and Its Violations of Human Rights. With largely bipartisan support, on Tuesday the House passed a resolution, H. Res. 823, condemning Iran’s treatment of its Bahai religious minority and its repeated violations of human rights. Introduced by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida), the resolution was cosponsored by a group comprised of 60 Democrats and 34 Republicans. In addition to criticizing the Iranian government for arbitrarily detaining members of the Bahai  community, barring them from government posts, and denying them access to higher education, the resolution also calls for the immediate release of all imprisoned Bahais and threatens to sanction all officials responsible for crimes against the persecuted group.

House Foreign Affairs Committee to Evaluate US Syria Policy. On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee  held a hearing titled “Diplomacy or Dead End: An Evaluation of Syria Policy,” headed by Chairman Eliot Engel (D-New York). Ahead of the hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn, who testified as a witness during the hearing, submitted testimony highlighting key takeaways from US Syria policy. Rayburn summarized Washington’s end goals in Syria as the defeat of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the withdrawal of all Iran-backed forces, and the implementation of an enduring political solution consistent with the terms of UN Security Council resolution 2254. He concluded that much remains to be achieved toward realizing these goals, but that they are interconnected. Rayburn emphasized the importance of economic, diplomatic, political, and military pressure as a means to pursue these foreign policy objectives and expressed full support for the  Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which imposes sanctions on the Syrian regime. On the contentious issue of US troop presence in Syria, Rayburn expressed support for the United States’ continuing backing of the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against the Islamic State “through our [US] presence in northeast Syria and in Iraq,” yet noted that ultimately, the end goal is to push “for the withdrawal of foreign forces not present in Syria before 2011.”

Congress Approves Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). On Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved the conference report on the NDAA for FY 2021 with a majority of 335 to 78. Earlier in December, the bill had also received overwhelming support from the Senate. If the $741 billion bill is approved by President Trump, or if Congress overrides a presidential veto, the largest component of the defense budget will be allocated to the Pentagon, while smaller amounts will go to the Overseas Contingency Operations account, the Energy Department’s nuclear programs, and the US Navy, respectively. The bill will also greenlight the purchase of nine new warships as well as 93 new F-35 fighters produced by Defense Department contractor Lockheed Martin, which is 14 more than the number requested by the Pentagon.

According to Politico, the bill urges army bases honoring Confederate leaders to undergo a renaming process and pushes to challenge President Trump’s abrupt plan to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Germany, putting Congress at odds with the outgoing president. Trump has threatened twice to veto the bill, most recently because it does not repeal Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which grants social media companies immunity for content published by their users.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Kushner Meets with Saudi and Qatari Leaders amid Potential Resolution to GCC Crisis. Senior Trump Administration aide Jared Kushner held separate meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in an apparent bid to resolve the ongoing diplomatic rift between the two Gulf Arab states. As per a report by The Wall Street Journal, a reconciliation deal between Saudi Arabia and Qatar could be signed within days, as both countries have agreed, in principle, to end the dispute. Accordingly, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Qatari foreign ministry spokeswoman Lolwah Al Khater both confirmed recently that a resolution to the crisis was in the offing, and Kuwait’s new ruler, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah—who has continued his predecessor’s role as a mediator in the dispute—praised President Trump for his support in this regard.

2) State Department

Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Discusses Regional Arms Sales. Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs René Clarke Cooper held a briefing on FY 2020 arms sales figures and the “positive evolution” in the region following UAE-Israel and Bahrain-Israel normalization. Cooper discussed how deals wherein the UAE would procure F-35 jets and MQ-9 Bravo drones, if finalized, would increasingly deter Iran from threatening the UAE and “imped[ing] the peaceful progress of normalization.” Jared Kushner has been trying to rally support in the Senate for the proposed multibillion-dollar arms sale to the UAE ahead of a bipartisan vote to block such a move, which has faced opposition from lawmakers over security and human rights concerns. This comes amid a recent report by The Intercept revealing how US intelligence agencies had learned earlier this year that the UAE was dealing with the US-sanctioned Russian mercenaries operating in Libya, known as the Wagner Group, in violation of a UN arms embargo on the war-torn North African country. Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have also expressed opposition to a potential US-UAE arms deal, given the Emiratis’ role in Libya and Yemen.

Secretary of State Pompeo Commends Slovenia’s Hezbollah Designation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo applauded the Slovenian government for rejecting the distinction between Hezbollah’s political and armed wings by designating the group in its entirety as a terrorist organization. Secretary Pompeo agreed with the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ description of the Lebanese group as a “criminal and terrorist organization posing a global threat to peace and security.”

Department of State Officials Travel to the Region to Discuss Wars in Syria, Afghanistan. Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn traveled to Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain, and northeastern Syria to discuss the ongoing war in Syria. He met with officials from the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria to reaffirm US support for regional stability. He also attended the IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, a “forum for government ministers … to debate the Middle East’s most pressing security challenges.” The three-day event began with opening remarks by Secretary Pompeo, who discussed a variety of security matters in the region. Meanwhile, the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, traveled to Turkey and Qatar to discuss the ongoing Afghanistan peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

New US Consulate General Opens in Morocco’s Largest CityUS Ambassador to Morocco David T. Fisher and US Consul General Jennifer Rasamimanana celebrated the opening of a new US Consulate General campus in Casablanca. Representatives from the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, among others, were present at the groundbreaking ceremony, which was hailed by its participants as a sign of the “enduring friendship and strategic partnership” between the United States and Morocco.

3) Treasury Department

Office of Foreign Assets Control Levels Additional Sanctions on Iran. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) recently issued two sets of sanctions against Iran. According to one press release, the first set targeted the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for its role in supporting Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Al-Mustafa International University for facilitating IRGC recruitment, and Yusuf Ali Muraj for his involvement in helping the IRGC to “coordinate, plan and execute operations in the Middle East and United States.” These sanctions were implemented in accordance with Executive Order 13224, which seeks to “impede terrorist funding.” The second set of OFAC sanctions targeted the Shahid Meisami Group and its director, Mehran Babri, for involvement in Iranian chemical weapons research. The Shahid Meisami Group, according to the press release, was subordinate to the Iranian Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. The new spate of sanctions is consistent with the outgoing Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign to counter what it perceives as Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East.

4) Department of Defense

President-elect Joe Biden Picks General Lloyd Austin as Defense Secretary. On Tuesday, President-elect Joe Biden officially named retired General Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon. If confirmed, Biden’s pick will be the first Black official to take on the position. It came as a surprise to many who speculated that Michele Flournoy, Obama’s former Pentagon policy chief, would be selected. Austin is believed to have been chosen due to his close relationship and past experience working with Biden, which draws back to the two leaders’ cooperation during the 2003 Iraq war. According to Biden, Austin is also uniquely capable of performing well under pressure, as demonstrated by his successful military record.

Acting Defense Secretary Appoints Trump Loyalists to Defense Department-allied Business Board. On Friday, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who was only recently appointed to replace former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, removed a group of senior Defense Business Board members and replaced them with Trump loyalists. Last week, Miller also purged Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright from their positions at an elite advisory board, replacing them with staunch Trump allies.