Washington Policy Weekly: October 24 – November 5

On October 31, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) held its fourth annual conference on the topic of “Media and Democracy in the Arab World: The Future of Freedoms and Rights in the Digital Era.” As the Washington Policy Weekly was not published on October 30, this week’s report covers developments from October 24 to November 5.

I. Congress

1) Legislation

United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Extension Act. On October 28, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) introduced H.R. 4862 that extends the terms of a cooperation agreement between Washington and Amman. On October 30, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) agreed to move the bill forward for consideration before the full House. As it stands, the bill would extend the United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act of 2015 until 2024, ensuring that Jordan—a recipient of robust US security assistance—receives the support Congress finds necessary for years to come.

Stop UN Support for Assad Act. That same day, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced H.R. 4868 to prevent UN assistance to Syria from benefiting President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Because the United States is one of the largest donors to the United Nations and its programs, the bill’s author is stipulating that no UN program funded with US donations benefits the Assad regime, directly or indirectly.

Syrian Partner Protection Act. Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colorado) also introduced a bill related to Syria. Crow’s bill, H.R. 4873, provides for special immigration consideration for Syrian Kurds who cooperated with US military personnel to secure parts of northern Syria. Lawmakers fear for the lives and well-being of Syrian Kurds in light of Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, so Crow and his colleagues want to provide safe haven in the United States for Syrian Kurds who worked with US military personnel.

Reaffirming the Strong Partnership between Tunisia and the United States. On October 29, the full Senate voted to adopt S. Res. 236, which reiterates the Senate’s support for strong US-Tunisian relations and for Tunisians’ pursuit of democratic reforms.

Remembering the 25th Anniversary of the Bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Argentina. The Senate also voted to approve S. Res. 277 commemorating the 25th anniversary of the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Urging the Release of Information Regarding the September 11 Terrorist Attacks on the United States. On the same day, presidential candidate and current Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) introduced H. Res. 662 calling on the US government to declassify tens of thousands of documents pertaining to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. At a press conference marking the resolution’s release, Gabbard invoked suspected Saudi involvement in facilitating the attacks as part of the information she is hoping to provide families of the victims who perished that day.

Protect against Conflict by Turkey Act. The House took a pair of actions against Turkey that will deepen the current enmity between the United States and Turkey. Members overwhelmingly backed passage of H.R. 4695—the Protect Against Conflict by Turkey Act—that levies sanctions on Ankara for its incursion into northern Syria against the Syrian Democratic Forces. Despite overwhelming support in the House and robust support in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has reportedly been signaling that he will not bring a sanctions bill up for a vote anytime soon.

Furthermore, House representatives approved H. Res. 296 which “commemorate[s] the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance.” This is the first time Congress has formally declared the forced mass relocation—and massive resulting deaths—of Armenians from former Ottoman Empire territory as “genocide,” in part because it is extremely sensitive to Turkey, a NATO ally. The Turkish government, which is the largest successor state of those that made up the Ottoman Empire, has held that what happened to the Armenians, while tragic, did not rise to the level of genocide nor did it constitute a systematic targeting of the group. As a result of both actions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is considering canceling his planned visit to Washington.

Requiring a Report on the Plan to Secure the Enduring Defeat of the Islamic State. On October 30, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) introduced S. 2755 to require the current administration to submit a report to Congress outlining its plan to secure the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS). This is in the wake of the administration’s decision to redeploy US military personnel out of parts of northern Syria, where large numbers of IS militants have remained.

Saudi Educational Transparency and Reform Act. During a markup in the HFAC, committee members agreed to proceed to full House consideration of H.R. 554. As ACW detailed earlier this year, the bill will require the administration to submit a report of Saudi educational materials that promote religious intolerance.

Honoring the Military and Intelligence Community Members Who Carried out the Mission that Killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On October 31, the Senate introduced and passed S. Res. 394 to honor the military and intelligence personnel who conducted the mission that resulted in the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Later, on November 1, Rep. Ron Estes (R-Kansas) introduced H. Res. 678 “[c]ommending the performance of the Special Operations Forces and a military working dog in the eradication of the terrorist leader of [IS].”

To Remove United States Armed Forces from Hostilities in the Syrian Arab Republic. Rep. Gabbard introduced H. Con. Res. 70, invoking the War Powers Resolution, in an effort to force a withdrawal of US troops from hostilities in Syria which have not been formally authorized by Congress.

Urging the UAE to Immediately End Any Activities Enabling Money Laundering. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri) introduced H. Res. 671 that calls on Abu Dhabi to cease all activities that enable the laundering of money that benefits Iran and circumvents US sanctions.

2) Nominations and Hearings

FY20 Budget: Examining the Administration’s Policy Objectives for a Turbulent Middle East. On October 29, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing with Trump Administration officials to understand the administration’s posture toward the Middle East. The committee requested testimony from Michael Harvey, the assistant administrator for the Bureau for the Middle East at the US Agency for International Development, and David Schenker, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Led by Democrats, the committee was largely critical of the administration’s policy toward the region. Key committee Democrats questioned the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Schenker, ostensibly the administration’s point man on the Middle East portfolio, admitted to being in the dark on details of the White House’s “peace plan” for solving the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

Nomination Hearing for Romanowski and Tsou. On October 31, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing for five Trump Administration nominees, including two would-be ambassadors to Arabian Gulf states. Alina Romanowski has been asked to serve as ambassador to Kuwait and Leslie Meredith Tsou has been tapped to represent the United States in Muscat, Oman. Both nominees are career government officials and are expected to win easy confirmation to their posts.

Threats to the Homeland. On October 30, the House Committee on Homeland Security held part two of its annual assessment of threats to the homeland emanating from global terrorism. The following week, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held its own hearing on the topic with most of the same speakers. Christopher Wray (see House testimony here and Senate testimony here), the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, David Glawe, the under secretary of Homeland Security, and Russell Travers (see House testimony here and Senate here), the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, all appeared before both committees. Kevin McAleenan, who recently left his post as acting secretary of Homeland Security, only appeared before the House Homeland Security hearing.

The witnesses told members of both committees that there were largely five forms of threats facing the safety and security of US borders and that two of those threats emanate from actors in the Middle East and North Africa. As has been the case since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, threats from foreign terrorist organizations remain a top priority in the view of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Specifically, the witnesses identified al-Qaeda, Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Islamic State as remaining threats. Lastly, Iran was repeatedly described as a threat—alongside Russia and China—as the witnesses assessed the threats originating from nation-state actors. Iran’s ability to use proxies, cyber warfare, and unconventional kinetic capabilities constitute threats to the United States, according to these DHS officials.

At What Cost? The Human Toll of Turkey’s Policy at Home and Abroad. On October 31, the bipartisan and bicameral Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe held a briefing on Turkey’s domestic and regional policies and their implications. Of the five witnesses, three discussed Ankara’s domestic repressive policies and tensions in the US-Turkey relationship. The other two experts outlined Turkey’s policies toward Syrian refugees and its Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria. One witness, Talip Kucukcan, explained the origins of Ankara’s incursion into its southern neighbor, explaining that it was based on President Trump’s consent to Turkey’s security concerns. He argued that the operation was intended to create a “safe zone” buffer at the border and to root out Kurdish militants that Ankara views as an existential threat. Eric Schwartz of Refugees International detailed the very real and negative implications of Turkey’s policies in Syria and at home. He said that there is evidence that Turkey and its Syrian partners have carried out human rights abuses and have forced a mass displacement of Syrians. In addition, Schwartz feared that Ankara is seeking to use the aforementioned safe zone to forcibly return Syrian refugees and artificially reengineer demographics in northern Syria.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Democratic Senators Want to See a New Ambassador in Khartoum. On October 25, Democratic Senators Tim Kaine (Virginia), Chris Murphy (Connecticut), Chris Coons (Delaware), and Cory Booker (New Jersey) cosigned a letter to the president expressing support for the new Sudanese government. After mass protests toppled the longtime leader and a transitional military council took control of the state, the Sudanese people were able to create a joint military-civilian council to oversee a three-year transition away from military rule and toward democratic civilian rule. The senators see this first step as a way to signal US support for the new government in Khartoum and they are urging President Trump to nominate an ambassador. The United States has not had an ambassador in Khartoum since 1997.

Top Democratic Presidential Candidates Discuss Aid to Israel at J Street Conference. J Street held its annual conference in Washington and many current members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates attended to discuss US-Israel relations. Most notably, some prominent candidates expressed interest in conditioning Washington’s robust security assistance to Israel on changes in its policies toward Palestinians and the occupied territories.

Sens. Warner, Collins Request Assessment of Escaped IS Fighter Threats. After Turkey made inroads into SDF territory in northern Syria, former IS fighters who had been detained by the SDF reportedly escaped from custody. Now, Senators Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are calling on the acting director of national intelligence to provide the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence with an assessment of the threat these escaped fighters might pose to the United States and its allies.

CODELS to Turkey, Iraq, and Jerusalem. Over the last two weeks, members of Congress have embarked on congressional delegation (CODEL) trips. Freshman Democrat Elissa Slotkin (D-Michigan) posted on Twitter that she and a bipartisan group visited Turkey and Iraq while Israeli reports said a CODEL visited Jerusalem as part of an AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee)-AIEF (American Israel Education Foundation)-sponsored trip.


II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Kushner Attends “Davos in the Desert.” At the one-year anniversary of the Saudi government’s ordering of the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, US officials attended the kingdom’s Future Investment Initiative (FII). FII is intended to be a spectacle to woo foreign investors to funnel money into the Saudi economy and help it diversify. Last year, however, the murder of Khashoggi proved too much of a public relations problem for many respectable businesses or states, so they did not want to be associated with this annual event. This year, the White House dispatched Secretaries Steve Mnuchin and Rick Perry as well as Jared Kushner, who is known to have a close personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the perceived force behind Khashoggi’s murder. Kushner offered remarks on the future of the United States’ role in defining the global agenda in 2020 and beyond (his conversation starts at the 8:47:30 mark).

President Trump Announces Death of IS’s al-Baghdadi. On October 27, President Donald Trump addressed the nation to announce that the United States, with its allies, located and killed the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in northwestern Syria.

Trump Administration Formally Shrinks Number of Refugees Admitted into the US. As ACW outlined in a previous report, the Trump Administration is formally moving to slash the number of refugees allowed to be resettled in the United States to a mere 18,000.

Trump and Sisi Discuss Ethiopian Dam. On November 4, President Trump and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi spoke on the phone to discuss, among other things, Egypt’s dispute with neighboring Ethiopia and its initiative to build a dam on the Nile.

White House Freezes Aid to LAF. Amidst popular protests and uncertainty in Lebanon, the White House has indefinitely frozen over $100 million in assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Congress and the Pentagon support aid to the LAF, viewing it as a cudgel wielded against the influence of Hezbollah; but the current administration opted to freeze the aid regardless. It is noteworthy that the LAF has been a dependable, though problematic, partner and that LAF personnel have thus far avoided harming protesters to an extent seen in places like Iraq.

2) Department of State

Pompeo Holds Talks with Turkish, Arab Officials. In recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has held a number of phone conversations and meetings with regional officials to discuss recent developments. The secretary spoke with his Turkish counterpart to discuss the ongoing situation in northern Syria. Pompeo also spoke with Sameh Shoukry, his counterpart in Egypt’s foreign ministry, to talk about US-Egyptian relations. According to the readout provided by the State Department, the two also spoke about Egypt’s human rights abuses, although that has not been a pressing matter to the administration before.

Pompeo also had conversations and meetings with three Arab Gulf states. First, he spoke with Saudi Arabia’s new foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. The secretary congratulated the foreign minister on his new role and expressed enthusiasm for working together in the future. On November 5, Pompeo hosted Adel al-Jubeir, who had served as Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, and on the same day he met with Qatar’s Minister of State for Defense and Security Affairs Dr. Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiya. Pompeo and Al Attiya spoke about regional issues in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and they also discussed the necessity of a unified Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Ironically, the GCC has been roiled by infighting for over two years after Saudi Arabia initiated a blockade of Qatar.

Ambassador Sales Highlights Release of 2018 Terrorism Report. On November 1, the State Department’s Counterterrorism Coordinator, Ambassador Nathan Sales, gave a press briefing to mark the release of the department’s 2018 Country Reports on Terrorism. As with last year’s report, Sales indicated that Iran is still considered the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. The lengthy report also details the successful fight to defeat IS but also warns of the threats that the group’s loose global network poses to the United States and others. Furthermore, the report discusses the threats posed by groups like al-Qaeda, which has affiliates throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and Hamas in Gaza and Lebanese Hezbollah. The report also accused the United Arab Emirates of becoming a hub for terrorists and their funding, and Saudi Arabia for jailing activists on charges of terrorism.

State Department Raises Reward for Information on Bob Levinson, Issues Waivers to Iran. This week the State Department announced a “Rewards for Justice” reward of up to $20 million for information on the whereabouts of Robert Levinson. Levinson went missing in Iran 12 years ago and is now the longest held hostage in US history. The timing of the announcement was symbolic, as it fell on the date marking the 40th anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis—an event that still tints the way many Americans view Iranians. In addition, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) introduced a bill on this very issue, setting forth sanctions on people who take Americans hostage.

Just days before, however, the State Department acted much more quietly when it decided to issue sanction waivers on parts of Iran’s nuclear energy program. These waivers allow for states and entities to assist Iran with aspects of its program. Though many Republicans in Congress want to see those waivers ended, other observers argue that maintaining them gives Washington insight into Tehran’s program and its capabilities, information it risks losing as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action continues to unravel.

3) Department of the Treasury

US Levies More Sanctions on Parts of the Iranian Regime. On the 40th anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis, the Treasury Department announced that it was sanctioning members of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s inner circle. The sanctions were applied to the Iranian Armed Forces General Staff and nine individuals, including one of Khamenei’s sons and Ebrahim Raisi, who was a presidential contender in Iran’s last election. Any assets these individuals may have under US jurisdiction will be frozen and they will be barred from traveling to the United States.

Beyond those sanctions, the State Department announced that Secretary Pompeo had used his authorities to impose new sanctions on the regime. These sanctions will target the country’s construction sector and deem four popular building materials as off limits due to their strategic use in Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Mnuchin Travels to Israel, Arab Gulf. Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, as was noted previously, attended the “Davos in the Desert” meeting in Saudi Arabia. That was just one stop in a broader regional trip as he also visited Israel, conducted other meetings in Saudi Arabia (see day one and day two), and traveled to the UAE and Qatar (see days one, two, and three).

4) Department of Defense

AFRICOM Chief Visits Somalia. This week, the head of the United States’ Africa Command (AFRICOM) center, General Stephen Townsend, visited Somalia. The top commander of AFRICOM went to assess US security efforts against terrorist organizations and he met with Somali officials, including the president.