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Situation Assessment 18 September, 2017

Arab Center DC Congressional Update: Week Ending 15 September, 2017

Marcus Montgomery

​Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst at the Arab Center, Washington, DC. Montgomery holds degrees in Criminal Justice and Psychology, and has studied Arabic and sociology at the University of Arkansas.

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Fiscal Year 2018 Omnibus. On September 14, the House of Representatives voted to adopt (by  a vote of 211-198) an omnibus bill—one bill that contains all 12 mandatory appropriation bills—that would provide the US government with $1.23 trillion; $621.5 billion of that is defense spending. Though the GOP-held House was able to push through an omnibus package for the first time in recent years, the effort may have been all for naught. The bill will move to the Senate where it faces stiff opposition by Democrats and is subject to a filibuster. Additionally, the House bill shatters spending caps and, if adopted, it would trigger across-the-board spending cuts—a process known as sequestration.

National Defense Authorization Act for 2018. This week, the Senate considered Fiscal Year 2018’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA; H.R. 2810), which the House of Representatives passed in July. This bill is crucial because it authorizes appropriations to be spent by the Department of Defense. The NDAA will also lay forth the Department of Defense’s policies for the fiscal year.

Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has eyed September 18 as the date the Senate will take a final vote on this legislation. The NDAA is a must-pass bill, and an overwhelming majority of Senators are expected to vote in favor of its passage. Afterward, the House and Senate will meet for a conference on the deal in order to reconcile the differences between each side’s respective bills.

2) Hearings and Nominations

Nomination HearingsOn September 12, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing on four of President Donald Trump’s recent nominees. Among those who testified was Justin Siberell, a longtime member of the Foreign Service, who was tapped to be US ambassador to Bahrain. Siberell listed three issues he would pursue, should he be confirmed to represent the United States in Manama: the first two include working to counter Iranian influence in Bahrain—where a Shia majority is governed by a Sunni monarch—and to pressure Bahraini officials to end human rights abuses of dissidents in the country. The third item on Siberell’s agenda is helping to resolve the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council crisis, to which Bahrain is a party. Siberell is an experienced Foreign Service officer and his experience could be useful in any US efforts to mediate an end to this conflict.   

II. Executive Branch

1) State Department

The State Department dispatched several key officials abroad this week to discuss some of the most pressing developments in the Middle East. Among those who attended key meetings was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, and Special Presidential Convoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk.

Tillerson in LondonSecretary Tillerson visited the United Kingdom September 13-14. While in London, he met with his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, and Prime Minister Theresa May. He later attended a meeting between the foreign ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, France, and Egypt to discuss the situation in Libya. Though the meetings were closed to the press and no formal readouts were provided at the time of this publication, Johnson and Tillerson did hold a joint press conference to discuss some of the topics they broached. Tillerson said he spoke with Johnson and May—as well as British National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill—about Iran and its influence in places like Syria and Yemen.

Tillerson reiterated the Trump Administration’s position that Iran is violating the “spirit of the deal,” referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated between Iran and the United States and United Kingdom, among others. Tillerson said the United States will consider the “totality of threats” posed by Iran when assessing whether or not to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. Though this has been a common refrain from the Trump Administration, it was jarringly disconnected from the opinion of Foreign Minister Johnson, who echoed some of the same concerns about Iran but spoke firmly of the need for both sides to maintain the negotiated deal. The United Kingdom appears poised to uphold the deal while the Trump Administration has appeared to favor reneging on the deal because of Iran’s nonnuclear activities.

When asked about Libya, both Johnson and Tillerson said that the meeting was intended to reaffirm the countries’ dedication to supporting the work of Ghassan Salamé, the head of the United Nations’ Support Mission to Libya. Salamé is tasked with negotiating an end to hostilities and the establishment of a functioning government in Libya. US and UK interests in resolving the Libyan crisis, Tillerson and Johnson noted, stem from the desire to prevent Libya from becoming a terrorist safe haven and to stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

Satterfield in AstanaActing Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield arrived in Astana, Kazakhstan on September 14 for the latest round of Syrian peace talks. Satterfield is an observer dispatched to reinforce the United States’ support for de-escalation and provision of humanitarian aid. This is the second consecutive round of discussions for which the United States has sent an observer, but it is the first that the newly appointed Satterfield has attended. There are reports that the representatives for Iran, Turkey, and Russia could leave Astana with an agreement on a final de-escalation zone in Syria.

McGurk in Erbil. On September 14, Special Presidential Convoy Brett McGurk held a press conferencein Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. McGurk provided an update on the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and addressed broader developments in Iraq. He discussed his recent meetings throughout Iraq, including with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, and Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.

With al-Abadi, McGurk discussed the progress of the anti-IS campaign, noting that there are likely only a “few battles to go.” McGurk also lauded the recent rapprochement between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and border opening between Jordan and Iraq.

McGurk’s visit with the Kurdish leadership also focused on the fight against IS, one in which the Kurds have played an integral part. However, he said he spoke very candidly with the Barzanis about the United States’ position—and that of the entire anti-IS coalition, he noted—against the upcoming Kurdish independence referendum. McGurk characterized the referendum as “ill timed and ill advised” and said that the United States cannot support the move.

2) Treasury Department

On September 14, the US Treasury sanctioned 11 Iranian individuals and entities for hostile activities, including conducting cyberattacks on US banking institutions. The sanctions order will freeze any assets these individuals or companies may hold in the United States. Additionally, all US persons and companies are now prohibited from conducting business with any of the 11 entities.

III. Judicial Branch

State of Hawaii v. Donald TrumpLast week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to uphold a lower court’s decision to block portions of President Trump’s immigration executive order. The travel ban, as it is known, was back in the courts this week after the Department of Justice appealed the lower courts’ rulings to the Supreme Court. On September 12, the Supreme Court ruled in the president’s favor, allowing for refugees who are already being processed for resettlement to be barred from entry. The fate of those affected by the travel ban will ultimately be decided in early October when the Supreme Court will hear arguments about the executive order’s legality. It is interesting to note that the portion of the original travel ban that bars citizens from the six specified countries will expire on September 24—over two weeks before the Supreme Court begins hearing arguments.