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Lawmakers tackle Syria, Near East aid

A look at the Middle East issues Congress will be addressing next week.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) arrives with Committee Chairman U.S. Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) (L) and ranking member Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) (R) to testify on agreements over Iran's nuclear programs, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst    (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - RTX16CKP

Lawmakers will get straight to work castigating Bashar al-Assad and examining foreign aid to the Middle East when they return next week from their two-week recess.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee marks up two resolutions on April 30 aimed at undermining Assad as the uprising against his rule enters its fourth year. Neither is legally binding.

A resolution from panel chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. — first obtained by Al-Monitor — calls on the Barack Obama administration to stop recognizing Assad as Syria’s rightful ruler and gives the State Department 60 days to give Congress a humanitarian aid strategy. The Senate passed a resolution earlier this month from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., requesting an aid strategy within 90 days.

Royce’s committee is also slated to take action on a resolution from Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, urging the United States and the United Nations to establish a Syria war crimes tribunal.

On April 29, the committee’s panel on the Middle East and North Africa examines the State Department’s $7 billion foreign aid request for the region — $5.1 billion of it in military assistance. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson and USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Middle East Alina Romanowski are slated to testify.

The hearing, chaired by chief Palestinian aid critic Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., is expected to trigger fireworks. In addition to the Palestinian Authority’s reconciliation deal with Hamas, the hearing comes just as Secretary of State John Kerry announced the release of $650 million in military aid to Egypt despite its democratic shortcomings and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy visits Washington.

Also on April 29, Rep. Smith’s panel will examine progress on tackling human trafficking. The latest State Department report took a number of Middle Eastern countries to task for their lack of progress on the issue: Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Kuwait and Yemen.

On a related note, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom on April 30 releases its annual report, which documents religious freedom violations in 33 countries and makes country-specific recommendations. Countries of concern include Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria.

On the military front, the House Armed Services Committee begins its markup of the annual National Defense Authorization Act on April 30. The Senate Armed Services panel doesn’t begin its markup of the massive bill until May 20, but will hold a hearing on counterterrorism policy on April 29.

Finally, the Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing April 30 on security threats to the nation’s transportation network.

On May 1, Engel and Royce will join Iran sanctions bill architects Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., at the pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies forum on “The Middle East in Transition: Allies, Adversaries and Enemies.”

And before Congress even returns, Sens. Angus King, I-Maine; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Bob Corker, R-Tenn.; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. — plus Hillary Clinton — all join their buddy John McCain, R-Ariz., this weekend at his McCain Institute for this year’s Sedona Forum, titled “Crisis in the Middle East: Values, Strategy and Options.”

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