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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

New Bipartisan Senate Bill Expands Syria Sanctions, Condemns Trump's Middle East Troop Withdrawals

By Christian Britschgi - February 05, 2019 at 03:30PM

Today, the Senate is expected to pass a major piece of foreign policy legislation that awards billions in military assistance to our allies in the Middle East, imposes new sanctions on rivals, and condemns President Donald Trump's plans to start pulling troops out of the region.

Last night, the Senate voted 72-24 to end debate on the Strengthening America's Security in the Middle East Act of 2019 or simply S.1, and move it to the Senate floor for a final vote.

The bill, originally introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), is a grab bag of Middle East-related policies, including stepped-up sanctions on the Syrian government, authorization for $38 billion in military assistance to Israel, and federal authorization for states and localities to refuse to contract with businesses that boycott Israel.

There is wide bipartisan support for S.1, as demonstrated by yesterday's lopsided vote to advance the bill. Critics include liberal Democrats, and the libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who took particular issue with the language condemning Trump's plans for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria.

"I'm tired of America always doing everybody else's fighting. I'm tired of America always paying for everybody else's war," said Paul in an impassioned floor speech yesterday. "What is the one thing that brings Republicans and Democrats together? War! They love it. The more the better," said the visibly exasperated Paul.

The Kentucky senator suggested that the Senate strip out S. 1's condemnation of the troop withdrawals and replace it with a resolution lauding the president's decision to bring military personnel home.

In addition to the anti-withdrawal language, the bill also makes good on a 2016 Obama administration promise to provide Israel with $38 billion in military assistance and missile defense funding over the next 10 years.

This money is "the largest single pledge of military assistance ever and a reiteration of the seven-decade, unshakeable, bipartisan commitment of the United States to Israel's security," reads the text of the bill.

Versions of this military assistance were passed by both the House and Senate during the last Congress, but had been blocked in the Senate by Paul, who demanded that any increase in foreign aid to Israel be offset by ending financial support to other foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Paul introduced an amendment to that effect yesterday, which was rejected.

Also included in S.B. 1 were enhanced sanctions against the Syrian government and those doing business with it. The bill gives the president the authority to sanction any foreign person who "provides significant financial, material, or technological support," to the Syrian government, senior Syrian government officials, or the country's oil and gas sector.

Selling military aircraft parts to the country is expressly forbidden as well, as is providing construction or engineering services to the Syrian government.

Also incorporated into S.1 is legislation that gives a federal green light for states and localities to refuse to contract with businesses that boycott Israel.

Laws and executive orders forbidding local and state governments from contracting with companies that participate in the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel have passed everywhere from New York to Texas, much to the chagrin of free speech advocates. The ACLU, for example, is currently suing Texas over its anti-BDS law.

Aside from its domestically controversial anti-BDS provisions, S. 1 is largely a continuation of long-running U.S. policy towards the Middle East, says Emma Ashford, a foreign policy scholar at the Cato Institute.

"The bill itself is largely status quo. It maintains an active U.S. military presence in the region, and bolsters funding for allies," Ashford tells Reason, saying that it "does nothing to change or alter America's Middle East strategy."

Significant sanctions have been in place against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria for years now, she notes. There's obviously nothing new about military assistance to Israel.

Still, says Ashford, there is some specific causes for concern in the bill.

The new Syrian sanctions could end up penalizing organizations trying to aid in reconstruction efforts in the country. The Senate's condemnation of the president's decision to pull troops out of a conflict that was never authorized by Congress to begin with, while non-binding, is nevertheless "another step towards abdicating their responsibilities on questions of war and peace," says Ashford.

In short, while the bill that the Senate will likely pass today does not do much to escalate America's role in the Middle East, it also does absolutely nothing to scale it back. That alone makes it a major disappointment for critics of our seemingly endless involvement in the region.

The Senate is expected to vote on S.1 sometime this afternoon, after which it will go to the House for a vote.


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