Washington Policy Weekly

This will be the final Washington Policy Weekly of 2019. We will resume our coverage of US government actions on the Middle East in the New Year.

I. Congress

1) Legislation

National Defense Authorization Act. This week both chambers of Congress passed the reconciled fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). As noted in the previous week’s report, the NDAA hosts a number of provisions relevant to the Middle East, including the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act and language that mandates that the government produce a report detailing who was involved in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Though its language is not aggressive as some lawmakers would have preferred when it comes to limiting US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the bill does officially require the United States to end mid-air refueling services to coalition aircraft.  

Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of IS. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) marked up and passed S. 2461, which is a comprehensive bill intended to counter the reemergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and to place pressure on an ostensible ally, Turkey. The bill levies sanctions on Ankara’s for its continued pursuit of integrating Russian missile defense systems into its military capabilities as well as for its incursion into neighboring Syria and threat to the Syrian Democratic Forces. The bill moves to the Senate floor for consideration by the full body, but there are still questions about its ability to survive a full vote since the White House is likely to oppose some of the legislation’s measures.

Recognizing the 40th anniversary of the Iran Hostage Crisis. During the same markup session, the SFRC agreed to pass S. Res. 395 which commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979. After the Islamic revolution swept Iran’s shah out of power, revolutionaries stormed the walls of the US embassy and held dozens of Americans hostage for over one year. The resolution calls for November 4—the exact day the American hostages were taken—to serve as a national day of remembrance.

Commemorating the Armenian Genocide through Official Recognition and Remembrance. Previous ACW reports detailed how the White House has been coaxing GOP senators to block a resolution recognizing the Ottoman Empire-era genocide against the Armenian people. This week, after it spent weeks languishing in the Senate, S. Res. 150 finally passed. Both chambers have now explicitly recognized the mass killings of the Armenians, and other ethnic groups, as genocide.

Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations. After coming to terms on a budget agreement for fiscal year 2020, Congress unveiled the parameters of the year’s foreign operations budget. The two main departments tasked with executing US policy toward the Middle East—the Departments of Defense and of State—each received increases in their budgets over the previous fiscal year. The Pentagon received more than $20 billion in additional funding while Foggy Bottom stands to see its budget rise by between $467 million and $500 million.

The budget agreement includes $3.3 billion in foreign military financing (FMF) for Israel and $1.3 billion for Egypt, $425 million for Jordan, $250 million for Iraq, $10 million for Morocco, and $85 million for Tunisia from the same account. In total, the states of Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen receive billions of dollars for military, humanitarian, and stabilization support. Furthermore, Congress circumvented the White House and approved a total of roughly $150 million for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories. However, the language of the budget explains that an amendment to the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act is necessary if half of that total is to be obligated to the Palestinians.

Interestingly, at the same time Congress is “[restoring] the State Department’s and USAID’s staffing to 2016 levels,” as Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-New York) described it, the State Department is making plans to scale down its presence even further in Iraq. The department is looking to reduce personnel by about 28 percent, according to the Foreign Policy report. This calls into question the administration’s willingness and capability to provide the necessary diplomatic support to Baghdad as it remains embroiled in massive popular protests.

DHS Cyber Hunt and Incident Response Teams Act. This week, the House and Senate were able to reconcile differences in a bill—H.R. 1158—that intends to improve the Department of Homeland Security’s cyber response capabilities. However, as noted by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), the bill’s language now includes a provision that provides debt relief to Arab League member Somalia. Somalia is saddled with unsustainable levels of debt and the idea is that this provision would help put Somalia on a path toward a more productive economic future.

2) Hearings and Briefings

US Policy in Syria and the Broader Region. On December 11, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing to explore US military policy for the Middle East, particularly in Syria. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley testified before the committee. The most notable remarks by the two witnesses revolved around the US posture in Iraq and Syria. In Syria, Secretary Esper asserted that the United States can continue its counter-IS mission—working by, with, and through the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—despite Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria. The Turkish military operation directly threatened the SDF, which is made up of an amalgam of fighters but whose Kurdish fighters are viewed as an existential threat by Ankara. In both Syria and Iraq, Esper and Milley agreed that countering Iran and ensuring the defeat of IS and other violent groups like al-Qaeda are of utmost importance and that the Pentagon has sufficient authorities to execute these policies in both states under the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force.

On US assistance to different forces in the region, Esper specifically stated that Washington is not providing “logistical help” to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen; but he did not rule out aiding the coalition in executing operations in Yemen in the future. As for the Kurdish fighters in Syria, Esper stated plainly that the relationship between the United States and the Kurdish-led SDF was always one based on defeating IS and that Washington never promised the Kurds protection against the NATO ally, Turkey. Esper repeated this and the other positions at a later event he participated in at the Council of Foreign Relations.

Senator Klobuchar Discusses US Foreign Policy in the Middle East. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations this week to assess the Trump Administration’s foreign policy priorities and to outline how a potential Klobuchar administration would differ from the current one. The senator was critical of the current administration’s handling of foreign affairs, particularly in the Middle East. She criticized the president’s abandonment of Kurdish fighters in Syria; she was opposed to the White House operating “business as usual” with Saudi Arabia despite its actions in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi; she disagreed with the administration’s policies that she considered detrimental to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians; and she proposed a completely different approach to addressing Iran’s malign activities in the region.

3) Nominations

SFRC Holds Confirmation Hearing for Lebanon Ambassador Nominee, Moves on Deputy Secretary of State. This week, the SFRC agreed to proceed with the nomination of Stephen Biegun as deputy secretary of state. Biegun currently serves as the Special Representative on North Korea and has since been tapped to serve as the department’s second-in-command. Later, the committee held a confirmation hearing for a number of potential ambassadors, including Dorothy Shea, who is poised to serve as ambassador to Lebanon. Shea noted that it is in the US government’s interest to see a Lebanese government that is responsive to the demands of protesters throughout the country and one that can manage an economy that is now nearing collapse.

4) Personnel and Correspondence

Democrats Call on UAE to Release Human Rights Activist. Middle East Eye reported this week that a group of Democratic lawmakers from both the House and the Senate penned a letter to officials in the United Arab Emirates calling on them to release the jailed human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. Lawmakers highlighted how Mansoor’s imprisonment contradicts Abu Dhabi’s attempts to position itself as the premier leader on human rights in the region.

House Democrats Write to Mnuchin about Iran Sanctions. This week, a group of House Democrats sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to express their concern over the impact of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on ordinary Iranian citizens. Multiple reports have detailed how, despite the administration’s declarations to the contrary, US sanctions are proving extremely dangerous to Iranian citizens not associated with the ruling regime. These lawmakers explained that even though the administration exempted a “humanitarian mechanism” to allow for the importing of life-saving medications, collective punishment of the Iranian economy has undermined these efforts and Iranians are dying as a result. They called on the administration to conduct a sweeping review of its policies and adjust its position to allow for sanctions relief for struggling Iranian citizens.

Secretary Pompeo Responds to Congressional Letter on Israeli Settlements. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to a letter sponsored by 107 House Democrats in November that criticized the department’s decision to proclaim that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank do not necessarily run afoul of international law. Pompeo’s response was rather strident, at one point calling the lawmakers’ assessments of the administration’s policies “foolish.” He categorically disagreed with the House members and ultimately defended the administration’s positions as righting past wrongs and promoting—not harming—the prospects of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

House Democrats Demand Briefing on Potential Turkish War Crimes. This week Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and three of her colleagues in the House of Representatives wrote to the Trump Administration requesting a briefing on potential war crimes in Syria. In October, as Turkey executed its “Operation Peace Spring,” reports suggested that Ankara used a compound known as white phosphorous against civilians in northern Syria—an act that would constitute a war crime if true. The representatives called on Jim Jeffrey, the special envoy for Syria, to provide a briefing to lawmakers to gauge the government’s position on the issue and what policy the administration would pursue if the reports were accurate.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Officials and Allies Speak at Doha Forum. This week, Trump Administration officials and an ally of the president’s in Congress attended the 19th annual Doha Forum in Qatar. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and advisor, appeared on a panel with the State Department spokeswoman while Secretary Mnuchin, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), and the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations Denise Natali participated in other discussions. Graham spoke most about the Middle East, urging intra-Gulf Cooperation Council reconciliation, continued vigilance against the threat Iran poses, and the ongoing fight against violent extremist groups like IS.

2) Department of State

Brian Hook Speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations. The administration’s point person on Iran, Brian Hook, attended a briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations this week to discuss the economic impact of the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Hook has been remarkably consistent in his public appearances, repeating nearly verbatim a list of statistics about the so-called successes of the administration’s pressure campaign. In sum, he reiterated claims that the United States is depriving Tehran of historic amounts of money and that budgeting shortfalls are having tangible effects on Iran’s support for proxy groups throughout the region.

Assistant Secretary Schenker Travels to France, Egypt. On December 11 and 12, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker was in France for a meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon. Schenker reiterated the US position that Lebanon’s ruling class will not receive an economic bailout until fundamental reforms are made to the country’s struggling economy.

Later, Schenker traveled to Egypt for meetings with Egyptian officials as well as officials from the Arab League, which is headquartered in Cairo. Schenker and the Egyptians talked about US-Egypt relations and the state of affairs in the region.

Under Secretary Hale Visits Lebanon; LECG Holds Eighth Meeting on Hezbollah. This week, amid continued protests, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale traveled to Lebanon to reassert Washington’s position on Lebanon’s economic and political upheaval.

Earlier in the week, the Law Enforcement Coordination Group (LECG) held its annual meeting on countering Hezbollah’s terrorist and illicit activities. Officials from a number of US agencies and departments participated in the meeting with counterparts from around the globe. The group largely focused on Hezbollah’s “financial, commercial, and procurement networks and schemes and their linkages to [Hezbollah’s] terrorist activity.”

Assistant Secretary Royce Travels to Jordan and Israel. This week, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce visited Jordan and Israel. Royce carried out meetings and attended events that further Washington’s promotion of educational and cultural exchanges with Israelis and Jordanians alike.

3) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Hezbollah Money Launderers; State Warns Against Exporting Metals to Iran. The Treasury Department announced this week that it was sanctioning two businessmen and associated companies—one based in Lebanon and one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—for allegedly laundering money for Hezbollah.

In other sanctions news, the State Department put out a press advisory notifying would-be exporters to refrain from exporting metals to Iran or risk being exposed to sanctions. Some metals, the department said, would contribute to Iran’s weapons proliferation and, as the United States seeks to increase pressure, any entity exporting certain metal goods to Iran could be subject to sanctions.