Washington Abuzz with Questions about Middle East Policy

Despite continued anti-racism protests and heightening coronavirus infections throughout the United States, it was also a busy week in Washington for those interested in US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. A number of Trump Administration officials and members of Congress participated in briefings to discuss everything from US foreign aid to the US military posture in the region. As these briefings often touched on issues relevant to multiple states at any one time, this week’s report is formatted a little differently. First, you will find a list of pertinent events and briefings. Following those is consolidated information about the week’s developments, organized by country (or group of countries). The report concludes with activities by Congress and the executive branch during this period.

June 10, 2020

The Project on Middle East Democracy hosted Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) for a virtual briefing on “President Trump’s Budget and Foreign Assistance in MENA in the Shadow of COVID-19.” The senator criticized the president’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal for trying to further “securitize” US assistance to the region; he noted that of the billions of dollars proposed for assistance to the region, only three percent is allocated for programs like democratization and good governance. Murphy expressed specific concerns about the president’s proposed cuts to economic and governance assistance to Lebanon; “devastating” and “short-sighted” cuts in assistance to Tunisia as it still struggles to stabilize and grow its democracy; and the maintenance of assistance to Egypt despite Cairo’s brutal crackdown on dissent in the country.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) held a virtual briefing with the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), General Kenneth McKenzie, titled “CENTCOM and the Shifting Sands of the Middle East.” McKenzie defined key US interests in the region—maintaining and improving stability, including the freedom of navigation, and eliminating the threats of terrorism to the homeland that emanate from the region—before discussing issues related to specific states.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) sponsored a briefing on “Safeguarding Religious Freedom in Northeast Syria.” It was held the same week that the State Department released its annual report on International Religious Freedom.

June 11, 2020

The Hudson Institute organized a virtual event with Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and Professor M. Miles Yu, who is on detail duty from the US Naval Academy and is currently a senior advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This event focused on “Great Power Competition in the Middle East.”

June 16, 2020

The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a virtual hearing on “Objectives of U.S. Arms Sales to the Gulf: Examining Strategic Goals, Risks and Benefits.”

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) held a virtual discussion with Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, about “The Future of US-Iran Relations and the Current State of the Iranian Economy During the Coronavirus Pandemic” (the video was not publicly available at the time of this publication).

Iraq. Iraq was a major topic of conversation this week, with Senator Murphy urging a strategic rethinking of US aid to Baghdad and General McKenzie holding it up as a successful counterterrorism partner that has enabled the United States and its international partners to maintain pressure on the so-called Islamic State (IS). Both of these subjects, and more, were addressed in this week’s US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue carried out via teleconference between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and Iraq’s Senior Under Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abdul-Karim Hashim Mustafa. According to the joint statement issued by the US and Iraqi officials, as well as remarks by Assistant Secretary Schenker, Washington and Baghdad expressed support and cooperation moving forward. While State Department officials said Iraq recommitted to ensuring US personnel are safe in the country—this coming after multiple rocket attacks were conducted against US troops or the embassy—the United States also agreed to continue reducing its troop presence in Iraq, a persistent and major source of tension.

It is clear that Washington will eventually have to reconsider its engagement with Iraq. Although General McKenzie argued that the Pentagon’s priority in alleviating these threats is empowering local partners to contain and eliminate the threats of groups like IS and al-Qaeda, Senator Murphy illustrated the jarring unevenness of US aid to Baghdad. He said that the US approach to foreign assistance under the Trump Administration “is completely backwards” as Washington spends four times more on security assistance to Iraq, he said, than on providing aid for economic and good governance development.

Syria. During the aforementioned USCIRF briefing, the commission offered recommendations for US action in Syria, including: pressuring Turkey to decide on a timeline for its eventual withdrawal from the country’s semi-autonomous northeastern region; expanding US engagement with the local governing entity known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria that, prior to Turkey’s invasion and occupation of that part of the country, oversaw day-to-day governance; and contributing to the efforts of nongovernmental organizations and other international partners to promote and ensure tolerance for religious freedom.

To be sure, the autonomous administration that the commission held up as a vanguard of religious pluralism in Syria was born only after years of war and it will continue to face pressure from Turkey and its local partners until an end to the fighting is negotiated. Ambassador James Jeffrey held a phone call with Russia’s deputy foreign minister this week to discuss ongoing efforts at reaching a diplomatic solution to the war. Despite Jeffrey’s engagement with Russia on negotiations under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, he was criticized during the USCIRF briefing for what some panelists consider was his role in allowing Ankara’s incursion into the region in the first place.

The United States increased its pressure on Syria beyond the autonomous administration zone this week. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act took effect on June 17 and the State Department immediately designated 39 individuals and entities for travel restrictions and financial sanctions, pursuant to the law. It is unclear how this will further pressure the regime of Bashar al-Assad, however, because he and his closest allies have all been under US and United Nations sanctions for years now.

Israel and Palestine. Just weeks after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) approved $38 billion in unconditional military aid to Israel, Senate Democrats—including some who sit on that very committee—are starting to express concerns as Israel’s plans for annexation loom larger. Over the last several weeks, ACW has chronicled congressional Democrats’ opposition to Israeli annexation (see here, here, and here) and more lawmakers have apparently voiced concerns in private. It was revealed that Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) and Minnesota’s Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith have all raised the issue of Israel’s annexation individually with Secretary Pompeo and the leaders of Israel’s governing coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) wrote a letter to President Trump this week, urging him to restrain Israel on the matter of annexation. Since the American Israel Public Affairs Committee reportedly decided to “allow” lawmakers to speak out against annexation, an extraordinary move (on many levels) in itself, a slew of sitting lawmakers and Democratic candidates for office have done just that. Now, a majority of the Democratic Party’s Senate caucus members have come out in opposition to Israel’s planned annexation. House Democrats are preparing their own letter, as well, and will caution Prime Minister Netanyahu against the proposed move.

Despite what seems to be a broadening of congressional opposition to annexation, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who is ostensibly in Israel to secure Washington’s interests, has been mediating an internal rift between Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s coalitions. Netanyahu, Gantz, Speaker of the Knesset Yariv Levin, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi are at odds over annexation and Friedman has been trying to mediate a compromise between full annexation and a partial one. At the same time Friedman has been engaged in undermining decades of US policy that has opposed unilateral actions by either side. In addition, Friedman came under fire from Democratic lawmakers for his failure to condemn violence perpetrated against Palestinians by radical Israeli settlers.

Iran. No week in Washington would be complete without its foreign policy establishment agitating for increased confrontation with Iran. General McKenzie, in his remarks at MEI (see above), identified Iran as the major regional threat to US interests. In outlining the ways Iran acts maliciously, McKenzie argued Tehran does so to “advance its own hegemonic interests.” It could also be argued that these destabilizing tactics are actually a form of power projection intended to deter Iran’s more powerful regional foes from attacking it, like Iraq did in 1980.

To combat Iran’s malign activities, McKenzie said Washington utilizes a whole-of-government approach that combines economic and diplomatic pressure with military deterrence. In that regard, Special Representative Brian Hook told his CFR audience (see above) that he hopes to maintain pressure on Iran by extending the UN arms embargo against Iran beyond October’s expiration date—unilaterally, if necessary—and wants to extend it indefinitely. Hook also told viewers that he would like to meet Iranian officials face-to-face to negotiate more prisoner swaps and further diplomacy in other areas. However, his history of bombast toward Tehran has almost certainly precluded any possibility of the Iranians agreeing to meet with him specifically, and probably with any Trump Administration officials.

Gulf Arab States. In Washington’s thinking, one of the best ways to push back against Iran’s behavior and protect global shipping routes is to arm its Gulf Arab partners with massive weapons sales. The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee explored this idea in a hearing this week and each party came to different conclusions about the effectiveness of the strategy. Democrats oppose more arms sales to the Gulf, particularly to Saudi Arabia, which has proven to be an untrustworthy and reckless partner. Republicans, however, argue that arming these states serves as a bulwark against Tehran—thus ignoring the fact that arming Iran’s regional rivals might in fact elicit a more hostile posture from the regime in Tehran as it seeks to protect its interests. One member of Congress cut through the partisan bickering and raised one serious point: what evidence is there, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) asked, to support the idea that arming states like Saudi Arabia contributes to collective defense? One witness, Andrew Exum, told the subcommittee that if war were to break out in the region between the United States and Iran, the Pentagon would most likely ask partners like Riyadh to “stay out of the way”—meaning that the Department of Defense does not view Saudi Arabia as a useful partner in such a war. This, Malinowski argued, undermines the entire premise of the administration’s strategy that says arming Gulf Arab states contributes to regional security.

Great Power Competition in the Middle East and North Africa. One major concern in Washington this week was great power competition in the Middle East between the United States and China and Russia. General McKenzie raised it as a concern, as did Assistant Secretary of State Schenker at the Hudson Institute and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a virtual briefing before the American Jewish Committee. McKenzie and Schenker both said the US strategy for confronting Russia’s and China’s growing influence in the region is to try and ensure that regional partners buy security technology and military equipment from the United States. When this happens, they argued, the United States prevents partners from being pulled further into the other two powers’ orbits and it provides consistency and stability in ensuring US presence in the region.

Jordan. King Abdullah II held videoconference meetings with congressional leaders on June 16 and with members of the SFRC and the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 17. In the first meetings, King Abdullah II urged lawmakers to oppose Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank and Jordan Valley. According to one report, he was to be confronted in the latter meetings with another demand to extradite a Palestinian woman named Ahlam Al-Tamimi who was convicted in Israel of terrorism. The report states that the Trump Administration—and Henry Wooster, the nominee to serve as US ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom—are considering cutting aid to Amman if leaders there do not extradite Tamimi to stand trial in the United States. This comes only weeks after House Republicans wrote to the Jordanian ambassador leveraging US aid to secure Tamimi’s extradition.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

United States-Israel Military Capability Act. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced legislation (H.R. 7148) this week that seeks to mandate that the Pentagon “establish a working group with Israeli counterparts to collaborate on the research and development of technology used for national security.”

Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) introduced the House companion bill to legislation that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) introduced in early June to protect civilians during US military operations. The legislation (H.R. 7174/S. 3852) aims to improve the way the US Department of Defense defines, addresses, and mitigates harm done to civilians and calls for more transparency in the way the Pentagon investigates and publicizes information about civilian casualties.

National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate Armed Services Committee successfully marked up and passed its version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, marking the 60th consecutive year the committee moved this crucial piece of legislation through committee on time. According to the committee’s report, the Senate’s version authorizes anti-Islamic-State support for US partners in Iraq and Syria; requires the Pentagon to notify Congress 30 days in advance if it wants to withdraw US troops from the UN peacekeeping mission in Egypt’s Sinai; and authorizes funds for missile cooperation with Israel.

Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act. On June 15, the full Senate voted to adopt S. 712 as amended., This bill allows for the federal government to provide relief to Americans unjustly imprisoned or detained abroad. It is named after Robert Levinson, a US citizen believed to have died in prison in Iran. If passed by the House, this legislation would be used, ostensibly, to help free US citizens detained in Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere.

2) Nominations

President Trump Officially Nominates Anthony Tata to Serve as DoD’s Number Three. On June 11, President Trump formally nominated retired brigadier general and former Fox News contributor Anthony Tata to serve as the third most senior official at the Department of Defense. As ACW previously reported, Tata has a questionable past that leaves many in the Senate skeptical of his nomination. Indeed, his path to nomination got harder this week when the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), came out in opposition to Tata’s serving as the undersecretary for policy in the Defense Department.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Sanctions ICC Officials for Investigations into US and Israel. President Trump notified Congress this week that he had declared a “national emergency” under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act due to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigation into alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan. In a separate White House statement, the administration specifically cites ICC activities aimed at Israel’s potential crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories as another factor for the decision. Now, anyone believed to be assisting the ICC in its investigation will have his or her property frozen if it is in US jurisdiction and any and all of these individuals’ travel authorizations for the United States will be revoked.

2) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo Holds Series of Calls on Middle East Issues. Though Secretary of State Pompeo has noticeably reduced his public appearances, he was nonetheless busy discussing developments in the region with leaders from Israel, Iraq, the United Nations, and the European Union. Pompeo spoke with his counterparts about developments in Syria and Libya as well as the need for maintaining pressure on Iran.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper, Israeli Defense Minister Gantz Hold First Phone Call. This week, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper held his first phone call with his new Israeli counterpart, Benny Gantz. The duo discussed the threats of the coronavirus and Iran to the region and lauded US-Israeli cooperation.