Combatting ISIL – Syria and Iraq Crises

After Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet over its territory last Tuesday, President Barack Obama maintained Turkey had a right to defend its airspace.  He spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that day, expressing U.S. and NATO support for Turkey’s right to defend its sovereignty.  The two also agreed on the importance of de-escalating current tensions and undertaking avenues to avoid future incidents.

President Obama noted the latest tension between Turkey and Russia “points to an ongoing problem with the Russian operations.  They are operating very close to a Turkish border, and they are going after moderate opposition that are supported by not only Turkey but a wide range of countries.”  President Obama added that the latest incident should, however, not lead to wartime escalation in the region.

Largely overshadowed by the Turkish-Russia incident, President Obama hosted French President François Hollande at the White House last Tuesday.  President Hollande called for greater global cooperation against ISIL, including U.S. and Russian cooperation.  President Obama however characterized Russia as an outlier, noting that its strikes against moderate opposition fighters in Syria bolsters the Assad regime.  Citing the fighter jet incident with Turkey, President Obama instead called on Russia to narrow its focus in Syria to only combatting ISIL and to move away from bolstering the Assad regime with the Iranians.

Amid a State Department travel warning about potential terror threats, President Obama convened the National Security Council last Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the Administration’s strategy against ISIL and threats to the homeland.  Pursuant to existing U.S. sanctions related to Syria, on Wednesday, 25 November, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added individuals and entities, including those based in Russia, to the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.  Meanwhile, the State Department announced the day before that it would be easing sanctions against Russian military manufacturer Rosoboronexport, specifically on subcontracts made on behalf of the U.S. Government with respect to the upkeep of Mi-17 helicopters for the security forces of Afghanistan.  The modification is effective retroactive to 2 September 2015 and will remain in place for two years unless the Secretary of State determines otherwise.

Despite Congress being in recess last week, bipartisan Members continued to call for the Administration to revise the U.S. strategy against ISIL, with Republicans focusing their ire on President Obama.  In Congress, the debate appears to be increasingly coalescing around three themes: (1) inserting U.S. ground troops, (2) imposing a no-fly zone, and (3) augmenting the current strategy.

Members on both sides of the aisle appear to be warming to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain’s (R-Arizona) previous proposal of instituting a no-fly/safe zone in Syria.  Congressman Adam Schiff (D-California), Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, backed the idea after the Paris attack, advocating for Turkey to commit to policing a safe zone that is protected by U.S. air support.  He further noted the creation of such a zone may stem the flow of Syrian refugees and allow for the training of moderate Syrian opposition forces.  The White House has consistently rejected proposals for a no-fly zone as impractical.  This option has become even more challenging in light of Russia’s recent intervention in Syria.

  • On Tuesday, 1 December, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “U.S. Strategy for Syria and Iraq and its Implications for the Region.”
  • On Wednesday, 2 December, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps: Fueling Middle East Turmoil.”
  • On Wednesday, 2 December, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “The Paris Attacks: A Strategic Shift by ISIS?”
  • On Thursday, 3 December, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a closed hearing titled, “The U.S. Role in the Middle East.”

Russia/Ukraine Crisis

While the ceasefire continues to hold in eastern Ukraine, U.S. forces began combat training last week for Ukrainian military forces.  This is an expansion of an existing program for Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.  Program’s supporters in Washington argue this expanded training is an effective alternative to providing lethal assistance to the Ukrainian government, an avenue President Obama continues to oppose citing concerns of possibly escalating tension in eastern Ukraine and with Russia.

  • On Tuesday, 1 December, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Nonproliferation and the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces are scheduled to hold a joint hearing titled, “Russian Arms Control Cheating: Violation of the INF Treaty and the Administration’s Responses One Year Later.”

Climate Conference – President Obama’s Paris Trip

Ahead of President Obama’s trip to Paris to attend the U.N. Global Climate Conference (COP21), the White House affirmed last week the pursuit of an international effort to combat climate change as a hallmark of the President’s foreign policy and international engagement.  The President departed Washington on Sunday and immediately paid his respects at the Bataclan theatre in Paris, one of the sites of the 13 November terrorist attacks.

At the start of the negotiations today in Paris toward a new international climate agreement, President Obama and other world leaders will announce a new initiative – Mission Innovation. Twenty countries are promising to double their respective budgets on clean energy research and development over the next five years.  While the U.S. Government currently has $5 billion focused on clean energy research and development, the Obama Administration will have to convince the Republican-controlled Congress to approve any funding increases.

President Obama will also meet today with Chinese President Xi Jinping; the two plan to send a signal of shared commitment to combating climate change and achieving an ambitious global climate change agreement.  The President will then participate in the opening ceremony of COP21.  Following a leaders lunch hosted by President Hollande, President Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, followed by a working dinner that evening.  President Obama is also expected to meet with other leaders while in Paris.

On Tuesday, President Obama will convene a meeting of island nations who are most at risk from the threat of rising sea levels.  This will include the leaders of the Seychelles, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, St. Lucia and Barbados.  The President will hold a press conference before he departs Paris and returns to the United States.

NDAA Signed into Law

President Obama signed the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law on Wednesday, 25 November.


Last Friday, the United States condemned Thursday’s terrorist attack against members of Tunisia’s security forces.  The White House affirmed the United States stands prepared to assist Tunisian authorities as they investigate this attack.

On Monday, the White House announced that President Obama had signed an Executive Order on Burundi-related sanctions and released a fact sheet on the action.  The United States has imposed sanctions against former and current senior Burundi government officials, which it says have contributed to the ongoing violence that erupted in April after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek an alleged unconstitutional third term.

Ex-Im Bank Update

Possibly complicating the highway bill (H.R. 22) reconciliation process – which includes a provision to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank – is a new Ex-Im-related policy rider offered this week by Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).  The provision, if included, would require any Ex-Im applicant to oppose Palestinian efforts to push other nations to take actions to boycott, divest or sanction (BDS) Israel.  Similar language already was included in the TPA legislation, which became law in July.  Lawmakers are hoping to conclude and pass a reconciled long-term highway bill before the 4 December deadline for extending federal transportation funding.

Other Congressional Hearings This Week

  • On Tuesday, 1 December, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Acquisition Reform: Next Steps.”
  • On Tuesday, 1 December, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Acquisition Efficiency and the Future Navy Force.”
  • On Wednesday, 2 December, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Department of Defense Personnel Reform and Strengthening the All-Volunteer Force.”
  • On Wednesday, 2 December, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Assessing the President’s Strategy in Afghanistan.”
  • On Wednesday, 2 December, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “U.S. Strategic Interests and the APEC and East Asia Summits.”
  • On Thursday, 3 December, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Effects of Reduced Infrastructure and Base Operating Support Investments on Readiness.”
  • On Thursday, 3 December, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Supporting the Warfighter of Today and Tomorrow.”
  • On Thursday, 3 December, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel is scheduled to hold a hearing titled, “Stakeholder Views on Military Health Care.”

Looking Ahead

Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:

  • 30 November-11 December: U.N. Global Climate Conference in Paris, France
  • 9 December: Vice President Biden travels to Kyiv, Ukraine
  • 9 December: President Obama hosts Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
  • 11 December: FY 2016 federal government funding deadline
  • 15-18 December: 10th WTO Ministerial Conference to be held in Nairobi, Kenya
  • 8-9 July 2016: NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland