Pentagon considers troop reduction in Sinai, causing Mideast concern
Washington - US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has notified Egypt and Israel that the United States was considering reducing the number of US troops serving in the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) unit in north Sinai because of the risks of attack by Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
Carter suggested that increased reliance on remote-sensing technology could do the job of the troops, who have been subjected to attacks from ISIS affiliates.
ISIS-affiliated Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) fired a rocket at the MFO’s airbase at el-Gorah in the northern Sinai in June 2015. Two Fijian soldiers and four US personnel were wounded by a bomb on a road near an MFO checkpoint in northern Sinai last September.
Given that north Sinai is where ISIS is most active, the Pentagon is concerned that US troops will come under more attacks. A Pentagon spokesman said plainly: “It’s a situation there that has risk.”
The MFO was established in 1982 to monitor the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in the Sinai, specifically the number of troops and equipment that are allowed in the Sinai peninsula within specified zones. The MFO has successfully ensured the peace treaty between the two former belligerents has been adhered to even when relations between them went through periods of high tension.
The United States has been a major contributor of troops to the MFO contingent since its inception and accounts for 700 of the 1,700 troops in the current contingent. The troops’ primary responsibility is to protect civilian observers monitoring troop and equipment levels as stipulated in the peace treaty.
However, as times have changed so, too, has the situation in the Sinai. The ISIS threat to Egypt and Israel has brought about closer cooperation between the two countries and Israel has agreed to Egyptian requests to put more troops and military equipment near the Israeli border — beyond what the peace treaty officially allows — to bolster the counterterrorism effort.
But while Egyptian forces have sometimes responded successfully to ISIS attacks, they have not reduced the overall ISIS threat in Sinai in a meaningful way. There are enough disaffected Bedouins in north Sinai to replenish the ranks of ISIS fighters killed in Egyptian military operations to keep the threat at a high level for some time.
There has been some shifting of MFO troops in north Sinai because of the threats. For example, a few small, remote observer stations in the area have been closed. Although the Pentagon wants to reduce the number of US troops in the “North Camp” and redeploy them to the southern Sinai, it is unclear how many troops are being considered in this drawdown. Some press reporting indicates that about 100 US troops may have already been shifted south.
There are downsides to reducing the number of US troops in the MFO.
Some Israeli and Egyptian officials have voiced concern that ISIS affiliates might be emboldened by what they would claim is a “retreat” by the United States. After talks about such reductions last November, an Israeli official said “it would reward terrorism… [and] encourage them to be more jihadi”.
Meanwhile, an Egyptian official said Cairo would oppose any reduction of US troops and referred to the MFO as “essential” to the security of the region.
Although 11 other countries contribute troops to the MFO, it is doubtful that any of them would keep their troops in North Camp if the United States decided to shift them south.
While it is understandable that Pentagon officials are seeking alternatives to monitor the northern Sinai without a substantial number of US troops, the decision has ramifications beyond the scope of mere force protection.
The last thing the United States would want is to provide ISIS with a “victory”, even an ephemeral one. For political and strategic reasons, it would not want to create problems with both Egypt and Israel.
While the Pentagon seems serious about reducing the number of US troops in North Camp, other factors might come into play that would cause it to rethink the plan.