Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Genocide and Atrocities Bills Moving Along. This week, Congress sent a completed Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 390) and President Donald Trump later signed it into law. As detailed previously, the law directs the Department of State and US Agency for International Development to craft strategies for providing affected communities with the financial and technical assistance necessary to address the lasting effects of genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as to collect necessary evidence to bring the perpetrators of those crimes to justice.

In addition, the Senate voted to adopt its version of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act (S. 1158) which looks to elevate genocide prevention as a top national security concern for the United States. As detailed before, the bill does not directly address the Middle East, but it was inspired, in part, by the atrocities suffered by ethnic and religious minorities at the hands of the so-called Islamic State. The House previously passed its own version, so the two chambers will have to agree on how to reconcile the versions in order to forge a full bill.

Condemning the Assad Regime and Its Backers; Condemning Iran. On December 11, the House, under suspended rules, voted to adopt H. Res. 1165 which condemns Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s backers in Tehran and Moscow for “continued support of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

In addition to the resolution condemning Assad and his patrons, a few Iran-focused bills and resolutions were on the move on Capitol Hill this week. First, the House passed a resolution condemning the Iranian government for its continued oppression of its Baha’i religious minority. On the Senate side, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced another bill (S. 3758) targeting Iran, this time levying sanctions on Iran’s financial institutions and disrupting the development and use of digital currency in the country. The final Iran-related piece of legislation offered this week was actually geared more toward the Trump Administration. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) introduced legislation (H.R. 7277) that would limit the funds necessary to undertake any kind of kinetic military operation in or against Iran.

Sanctioning the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act. In October, ACW wrote about how the Senate agreed to adopt H.R. 3342, which was designed to punish Hezbollah, Hamas, and other groups for allegedly using civilians as human shields, but senators chose an amended version that differed from the original one passed in the House. This week, the House voted to adopt the Senate version as their own, which means the differences between the two versions are resolved and the bill is cleared to go to the president for his signature.

Saudi-Yemen Legislation. There was a lot of coverage of Senate efforts to publicly hold Saudi Arabia accountable for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death and the ongoing war in Yemen. The major results from this week’s flurry of activity were the passage of S.J. Res. 54 and S.J. Res. 69 (for a more comprehensive take on the week’s actions, see here). Amid the debate over Yemen and US-Saudi relations, three senators took time away from Capitol Hill to attend conferences where these same questions were discussed. Senators Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) spoke at Politico’s “Women Rule Summit” and Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana) spoke about Yemen at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

2) Hearings and Briefings

CIA Director Briefs Select House Members on Khashoggi Affair. On December 12, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Gina Haspel returned to Capitol Hill to brief a select group of House lawmakers on her knowledge of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The following day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis briefed the full House on the administration’s assessment of US-Saudi relations, a briefing akin to the one they gave to the Senate last month. Unlike in the Senate, the response to the briefings was more partisan among House members. Most Democrats were more adamant about holding Riyadh accountable, but many Republicans were content to defer to the president or say that the briefings did not move them to fundamentally change the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Members of Congress Are Filling Out the Syria Study Group. Earlier this year, Congress passed the FAA Reauthorization Act that is necessary for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to continue regulating the civil aviation industry. But this year’s version of the law had a provision tucked in that authorized Congress to establish a “Syria Study Group” in order “to examine and make recommendations on the military and diplomatic strategy of the United States with respect to the conflict in Syria.” Per the provision, the group will consist of 12 members, all of whom are appointed by House and Senate leaders. The chairs and ranking members of both the House and Senate armed services committees and both the Senate and House foreign affairs committees are allowed one choice, as are the speaker of the House, House minority leader, and the Senate majority and minority leaders. This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) tapped Vance F. Serchuk to join the group. Serchuk joins Dr. Kimberly Kagan on the group’s roster thus far.

SFRC Recommends Ambassador to Yemen, Assistant Secretary for Near East. On December 13, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) voted to move along the nominations, among others, of Christopher Henzel and David Schenker. Henzel has been nominated to serve as ambassador to Yemen (watch his nomination hearing here) while Schenker is set take over as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (nomination hearing here). Their cases having moved from committee, it is likely these two nominees could be confirmed before Congress ends its term this year.

Senators, Representatives Demand Compensation from Saudi Arabia, Egypt. This week, senators wrote or spoke about efforts to receive compensation from two US allies in the region. First, Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) announced that after putting some pressure on the Pentagon, the Defense Department would be seeking $331 million in compensation for the costs of providing in-flight refueling to Saudi-led coalition aircraft making runs over Yemen. Additionally, while writing to Secretary Mike Pompeo about Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record, a group of House members raised the point that Cairo still has not provided compensation to a US citizen, April Corley, who was injured in a military airstrike—the Egyptian military says it accidentally targeted her tour group and she was eventually billed for the medical evacuation flight. Cairo has apparently offered her a sum of less than the amount for that bill alone, despite the fact that Corley continues to suffer from her injuries. Lawmakers want Egypt to cover her past bills and to ensure she can maintain a reasonable standard of living moving forward.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Vice President Pence Speaks with Iraqi Officials; Jared Kushner Discusses Saudi Arabia. This week, Vice President Mike Pence spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to congratulate him on forming a new government in Baghdad. Senior White House advisor Jared Kushner also made a rare public appearance when he had an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. The interview was supposed to be about prison reform in the United States, but Kushner was asked about Middle East policy as well. Kushner did not say anything surprising and he basically peddled the administration’s talking points on peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the nature of US-Saudi relations.

2) State Department

Pompeo Pushes Administration Policy on Air, at UNSC. This week, Secretary Pompeo conducted more interviews in which he defended the US-Saudi relationship and he took a swipe at the United Nations as an institution. Ironically, he later went before the UN Security Council (UNSC) to try and sell the administration’s belief that Iran is the single greatest threat to regional and global security. As has become the case with Pompeo, he spoke with the hosts of Fox News’ Fox and Friends to essentially obfuscate the reality of what the CIA says happened to Jamal Khashoggi and who was responsible for his tragic murder. At the United Nations, Pompeo spoke at length about Iran’s ballistic missile program and the purported violations of UNSC resolution 2231. Pompeo ultimately called on the body to more forcefully combat Iran’s development of a ballistic missile program, but he also urged everyone involved to maintain an arms embargo on Iran beyond 2020 when the current one can be lifted. As some have argued, Pompeo’s continued demonization of Iran before the global community actually undermines US priorities. In addition, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations derided Pompeo’s remarks for fueling “hysteria” at the meeting.

3) Energy Department

Secretary Perry Visits Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq. Shortly after Doha announced it would be leaving the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Secretary of Energy Rick Perry visited Qatar to meet with his Qatari counterpart and other stakeholders in the Gulf state’s energy sector. The discussions mainly focused on US-Qatari partnerships in the liquefied natural gas and petroleum sectors in the two countries. In addition to visiting Doha, and despite the ongoing frustration with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the secretary visited neighboring Saudi Arabia to discuss issues surrounding oil production and nuclear energy cooperation. On the oil front, Perry spoke with his Saudi counterpart about OPEC’s recent decision to cut production, to which members of the Trump Administration have been opposed. They see Riyadh as a linchpin in stabilizing oil markets after Iran’s oil exports drop under renewed sanctions, as cutting OPEC production will only increase the price of oil.

Regarding nuclear energy, Secretary Perry spoke with the Saudis about continued negotiations on what is known as a “123 agreement” and the need for Riyadh to enlist the help of American companies if it chooses to pursue a civilian nuclear energy program. Many in Congress are wary of cutting a deal on nuclear energy with Saudi Arabia because it has repeatedly refused to accept limits on enriching uranium—a key cog in the process of building a nuclear weapon. In response to Perry’s visit, Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) wrote to Perry requesting a briefing on his discussions with the Saudis as it relates to any potential 123 agreement, which has to be approved by the Senate.

Perry also visited Iraq during his trip, urging Baghdad to wean itself off Iranian energy exports. Iraq’s economy is exposed to US sanctions due to the nature of its economic ties with Tehran, but Perry declined to comment on whether Iraq would be granted another waiver, which would allow it to continue trading with Iran until viable alternatives are realized.