The crisis in Crimea will continue to dominate the foreign policy agenda when Congress returns next week, but Middle East policy won’t be forgotten.
As Syria enters its fourth year of conflict, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the “next steps” for US policy after the failure of the Geneva talks. Former Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is slated to testify in her first Senate appearance since being confirmed as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
The hearing comes as lawmakers are urging the Obama administration to provide some new direction for dealing with Syria and especially addressing the humanitarian crisis. The push comes as the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued an updated report this week accusing al-Qaeda-linked militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant of mass executions of detainees and the Bashar al-Assad regime of increasing its use of indiscriminate weapons, notably barrel bombs.
Foreign Relations Near East subcommittee Chairman Tim Kaine, D-Va., introduced a resolution last week demanding that the Obama administration present Congress with a new humanitarian strategy within 90 days. And nine senators of both parties signed on to a letter urging President Barack Obama to “engage Congress as your team moves forward in developing and implementing policy options.”
House members are also demanding a Syria policy reboot. The chairman and ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs panel, Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., have introduced their own humanitarian aid resolution, which requests the administration to present a strategy within 60 days and urges the administration to stop legally recognizing Assad, as Al-Monitor first reported last week.
The Senate panel had been expected to hear Secretary of State John Kerry’s pitch for Obama’s 2015 budget request, but that’s been postponed for the second time as Kerry heads to The Hague to attend a G-7 leaders’ meeting with Obama dedicated to the crisis in Ukraine.
On another funding front, the House Appropriations panel on State and Foreign Operation will hear from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Tuesday regarding the budget request for the department’s International Programs. That includes $5 million for the Middle East and North Africa Transition Fund, a multi-donor trust fund administered by the World Bank that the US championed in response to the Arab Spring.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is also holding a slew of hearings that touch on the Middle East.
The Western Hemisphere panel examines America’s “disengagement” from Latin America and its security implications on Tuesday — with Iran likely to be a topic of concern. And the full committee will examine the "geopolitical potential of the US energy boom" on Wednesday as Republicans latch on to the Ukraine crisis to push for liberalizing energy exports.
The committee is also scheduled to mark up a resolution Tuesday that urges Burma to end its persecution of the Rohingya. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri issued a video message in January slamming the mistreatment of the Muslim minority.
Two House Judiciary and Oversight subpanels hold a joint hearing regarding the Department of Homeland Security’s apparent decision to allow Libyans into the country for flight and aviation maintenance training and nuclear-related studies and training. Some Republicans argue Gadhafi-era restrictions should stay in place because Libya has heretofore failed to “normalize” its relationship with the United States.
Finally, Obama’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia will be closely watched by Capitol Hill. Reps. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Jim McGovern, D-Mass., circulated a bipartisan letter first obtained by Al-Monitor, ahead of the trip requesting that the president bring up the kingdom’s “serious human rights violations” when he meets with King Abdullah — in particular, its lack of religious freedom.