Last week, Congress reached consensus on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the $783 billion bill that funds the Department of Defense. To discuss the bill and how it may impact U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Director, Aaron Stein, spoke with Will Quinn, a former U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Professional Staff Member and current doctoral student at Johns Hopkins SAIS.
Aaron Stein: Will, first off, thanks for doing this. The NDAA is a beast that totals well over a thousand pages. It’s always packed full of interesting tidbits and, collectively, helps set the priorities for U.S. defense policy. So, top line, what does this year’s NDAA say about Congress’s perspective U.S. strategy and defense policy in the Middle East?
Will Quinn: Aaron, thank you for the invitation — it’s a pleasure. A few broad aspects of the bill that struck me:
The NDAA, the Middle East, and the National Defense Strategy. First, this year’s NDAA is heavily focused on great power competition between Russia and China per the 2018 National Defense Strategy. The major forward-looking programs and authorities all focus heavily on modernization for high-end conflicts and activities in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region. Threats in the greater Middle East, like Iran or terrorist groups, are important but lesser priorities in the development of the future force, while relations with a number of traditional regional allies and partners like Turkey and Saudi Arabia remain fraught. Nonetheless, overseeing a shift away from a part of the world where U.S. forces have fought for nearly two decades, and that consumes assets like intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and precision-guided munitions that are in high demand globally will be challenging — especially given reports that the Department of Defense may send more troops to the Middle East to deter Iran and reassure Saudi Arabia.
Areas of Continuity and Agreement. Second, the bill continues to support U.S. partners like the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), often referred to in somewhat inaccurate shorthand as “the Syrian Kurds”; the Iraqi Security Forces, especially those focused on counterterrorism; and, a little farther afield, the Afghan Security Forces. The takeaway here is that Congress remains largely united on the importance of consolidating gains against terrorist groups and supporting security partners amid, and sometimes despite, shifting political, strategic, and operational contexts. It is also notable that the NDAA includes the Caesar Syria Civilian Protect Action, a package of sweeping sanctions on the Syrian financial sector named for a pseudonymous Syrian national who documented the regime’s human rights abuses. The bill reflects a bipartisan desire to punish Bashar al-Assad, among others, for the regime’s war crimes.
Areas of Discontinuity and Disagreement. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be the Middle East or Congress if members saw eye-to-eye on everything. Partisan and inter-chamber divides remain on a number of issues, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran. These issues typically generate large numbers of expansive amendments in the House bill in markup or on the floor. Many of these amendments — one prohibiting the sale of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates ( 1099x in the House NDAA) for a year, and another sanctioning Saudi individuals involved in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder (section 1296A in the House NDAA) — did not make it through conference to the final bill, and reflect divergences of opinion on the best path forward and best how to engage with Riyadh.
Aaron: Perhaps, let’s start with something on congressional oversight on U.S. operations in Yemen and some of the disagreement about Saudi Arabia. In many ways, it is a broader conversation about what America’s policy in the Middle East should be and how Saudi Arabia fits into that. So, let’s start there, tell me your thoughts.
Will Quinn: The Yemeni Civil War has long been a contentious issue on Capitol Hill almost from its outset in 2015. The war pits the Houthi rebels, supported by Iran with materiel, against the Saudi-led coalition, which has conducted an air campaign characterized by large numbers of civilian casualties. The suffering of the Yemeni people has been immense and while neither side can claim to be blameless in the bloodshed, starvation, and outbreak of disease, members of Congress took an immediate interest in the war; in particular the Obama administration began to support the Arab coalition. At the outset of the conflict, the United States Over the following few years, a growing number of members and staffers in the House and Senate, representing both Republicans and Democrats, began to offer legislative measures to either stop arms sales or tighten the oversight on U.S. policy decisions.
At the end of last year, DoD decided to stop the air-to-air refueling, which was seen as a particularly problematic form of support to the Saudi-led coalition. Arms sales may be fungible but it was perfectly clear to observers that the Saudi F-15s the U.S. was refueling were headed for Yemen where civilian casualties in the air campaign continued apace. Officials made that decision in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, which turned congressional and public opinion in the U.S. strongly against Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman whose involvement in the murder and direction of the Saudi coalition’s war in Yemen are well known. The episode is a reminder of how controversies in one area can cascade and affect policy elsewhere, particularly when they are linked by prominent personalities and a perceived pattern of behavior. This dynamic is easy enough to see in the case of Turkey as well, which I am sure we’ll get to.
Several provisions this year directly address this issue, where there is a degree of consensus, but the bill reveals broader disagreements in Congress over the degree to which the U.S. should seek to stop the sale of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Aaron Stein: What does this mean in practice? Can you summarize the meaning of some of these sections?
Will Quinn: Absolutely. Four provisions stood out to me that illustrate the basic dynamics here.
First, there’s section 1273 which essentially codifies DoD’s decision to stop refueling Saudi and the coalition’s jets into law, which is very straightforward. Congress can take credit for pushing DoD on this issue and can ensure that the policy remains in place.
Second, there’s section 1203 which provides greater congressional oversight and control over the underlying legal authority that allows DoD to refuel the aircraft of foreign militaries. It’s a very wonky but important provision. That authority allows DoD to enter into an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement (ACSA) with a foreign country and provide logistical support on a reciprocal basis (i.e. the U.S. can refuel foreign planes but must receive compensation either in money or in kind). One of the concerns here is the ACSA was a tool originally designed in the context of NATO and has expanded to a number of other countries in past decades, often without adequate notification to Congress and in the case of Saudi Arabia, the collection of reciprocal support. Section 1203 requires the Secretary of Defense to designate a senior official have responsibilities for overseeing ACSAs and tightening notification requirements for new ACSAs with non-NATO members.
Third, pursuant to sections 1273 and 1203, there’s section 1275 which requires reports on the expenses incurred for in-flight refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft on missions related to Yemen. After pressure from members of Congress and staff, DoD ended up billing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at the end of last year for $331 million per the terms of their ACSAs. This report appears to be more or less an effort to check that math.
Fourth, there is the rejection of a House amendment (section 1099x in the House NDAA) on the export of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for one year in the conference report. The subtext here is that despite the desire by many members to disentangle the U.S. from its prior tangential involvement in the Saudi coalition’s campaign, a critical mass of members likely believes that the regional security environment demands the maintenance of relations with U.S. partners — particularly in view of Iran, which has provided weapons used by the Houthis to strike Saudi Arabia and struck refineries itself earlier this year.
Aaron Stein: One can’t talk about Yemen without mentioning Iran. What does the NDAA say about Iran, particularly amid talk of potential troop deployments to Saudi Arabia?
Will Quinn: As always, Iran is another area of major controversy in the bill. Vehicles like the NDAA often struggle with how to address problems like Iran. Congress has the ability to request information, establish or eliminate authorities, support or oppose elements of the president’s budget, and, with the support of outside committees, impose sanctions, but there are relatively few levers to directly address Iran in the base defense authorization bill. This is especially true at a moment where divided government and a divided Congress prevent any major movements on Iran, even in floor amendments to the NDAA. The final bill contains measures that reflect these realities: section 1284, for instance, clarifies that nothing in the NDAA should be construed as an AUMF against Iran or any other country; section 1226 expands the availability of seized Iranian funds for victims of terrorism; and a number of sections that require reports on Iranian activities. The debates over whether the U.S. should deploy more troops to the Middle East to deter Iran and reassure its allies are likely to be much more public and heated than what is represented in this year’s bill language.
Aaron Stein: What about Iraq and what the NDAA signals about how Congress views the country?
Will Quinn: The bill language and the language in the conference report both reflect a desire to continue working with Iraqi security partners on counterterrorism against ISIS and broad support for DoD’s approach. The subtext here, of course, is that members agree on the importance of partners to defeating ISIS and do not want to see resurgent terrorist groups capable of overrunning Iraqi forces. At the same time, there is also a desire in the bill to see the defense relationship with Iraq normalized with the establishment of a traditional security cooperation office in lieu of the current Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq (section 1223) and to support broader non-military efforts to help the Iraqi government consolidate gains against ISIS by improving governance. Alongside all of these issues are statements of support by Congress for the Iraqi Kurds and various religious and ethnic minorities.
Aaron Stein: Let’s pivot to section 1224, which has some specific stuff about Islamic State and foreign fighters.
Will Quinn: The disposition of detained ISIS members and their associates remains an incredibly fraught topic, both in terms of getting countries to accept the repatriation of foreign fighters and in terms of the security of these prisoners. As many know, a large number of ISIS fighters are in the custody of the SDF — the principal U.S. partners on the ground in Syria — which led to major public concerns following the initiation of Turkish operations in northeastern Syria against the SDF, whose Kurdish backbone, the YPG, Ankara considers a terrorist group. The possibility that SDF forces would abandon detention facilities to fight the Turks raises obvious concerns as does the less than optimal security for these facilities. Section 1224 seeks to energize the interagency effort to address this problem by requiring the President to designate a senior-level coordinator to deal with this problem and for that individual to submit a detailed yearly report to Congress on the progress of their efforts and the broader situation.
Aaron Stein: Finally, let’s turn to my own personal interest, Turkey and the F-35. Congress really is fed up, right? Can you talk a bit about the atmospherics here and where this may be going?
Will Quinn: Historically, Congress has had a number of advocates for U.S.-Turkish relationship. Those advocates sometimes contended with advocates for Greece in the Congress. The former are almost completely absent now. That hollowing out is due to a number of factors that have given members of Congress the impression that Turkey either no longer belongs in a “values-based alliance” like NATO, has decided to tilt towards Russia, or is simply an unreliable ally. (The latter charge is one that many Turkish officials reciprocate.) A few specific observations here:
The major focal point over the past two years or so is Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which many worry will compromise the security of the F-35 by collecting data on it that could be shared with Russia. The transaction runs afoul of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) — a piece of legislation that sanctions countries that make significant purchases from the Russian defense and intelligence sectors. That legislation reads in many ways as if it was written with precisely this specific, highly touted S-400 transaction in mind.
It’s frankly very difficult to envision a scenario where the Executive Branch will be able to finesse the strict provisions of CAATSA or persuade Congress to take a softer line. The fraught history of the attempted sale of the American-made Patriot missile system, the imprisonment of a number of U.S. citizens and Turkish citizens that work for U.S. consular missions in Turkey, the Turkish advance against the Syrian Kurds in the SDF, and the general impression that Turkey is tilting towards Russia out of strategic choice at this point, do not provide much hope that this issue will be resolved at any point soon. The challenge for policymakers is how to wall off the fallout from the F-35 issue and sanctions on Turkey from broader areas of cooperation — with an ally that is not especially popular with the Congress.
This can be seen in section 163 of the NDAA, which prevents the use of funds to deliver the F-35s Turkey has purchased, but now remain inside the U.S. at Luke Air Force Base. The conference report language for which frankly states that the Congress supports removing Turkey from the F-35 program and procuring the Turkish F-35As for use by the U.S. Air Force. This provision gives DoD $30 million to store the jets and, within 90 days, to draft a plan to address the Turkish F-35 problem. It can also be seen in section 1245, which prevents the use of DoD funds to facilitate the transfer of virtually anything F-35 related — airframes, spare parts, intellectual property — to Turkey until Ankara no longer possesses the S-400 system and has provided assurances that it will not seek one in the future.
Aaron Stein: There is obviously more in the bill, so we may have to have you come back. Thanks for doing this.