Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The Wages of the Sinai

by Steven A. Cook
May 3, 2012

An Israeli Cobra helicopter fires missiles at targets (Amir Cohen/Courtesy Reuters)


I remember in 2008 sitting in the office of Abdel Monem Said Aly who at the time was the director of the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies when the subject of the Sinai came up. It was a few months’ time after Hamas had blown a hole in the wall that separates Gaza from the Egyptian frontier, resulting in thousands of Palestinians rushing into the Sinai to buy supplies and seek medical care.  Abdel Monem was not unmoved by the plight of the Palestinians, but he was clearly worried about Egyptian security.  He asked me what I thought would happen if a Palestinian extremist group were able to infiltrate Israel from the Sinai and carry out some sort of deadly attack.  “How would Israel respond?” Abdel Monem asked rhetorically.  He knew that the Israelis would respond, but how, where, and to what extent were unknowns that clearly unsettled him.  At one end of the escalation ladder, the Israelis military might try to push into the Sinai much like the Israel Defense Force’s periodic advances in Lebanon or the Turkish military’s incursions into northern Iraq.  This would no doubt put the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and thus Egyptian security in jeopardy. Perhaps the Israelis would use some other tactic, but either way this would create a terrible security dilemma for Egypt’s leaders.  The Egyptians could absorb the blow and be forced to confront additional opprobrium of their people or they could respond and risk a conflict with Israel that they would likely lose.

Abdel Monem later became the chairman of the board of the government-controlled al Ahram Foundation and was thus by definition part of the regime.  He was pushed out of that lofty position after the uprising, though he continues to have a column at the daily newspaper, al Ahram.  Abdel Monem is a member of the widely detested felool—remnants—but he was and still is a very good strategic analyst.   Why the meditation on a meeting that happened four years ago?  You would never know it from the msm, twitter, or anywhere else, but Abdel Monem’s Sinai scenarios could become a reality soon.  On Wednesday, the IDF mobilized six reserve battalions (an additional 16 were authorized and will be mobilized, if necessary) as a precautionary measure given the potential for instability in the Syria and Egypt to affect Israeli security.

This issue has been simmering for since last summer, but it seems to be heating up now.  On April 24,the Israeli prime minister called the Sinai the “Wild West.”  Netanyahu was responding the bombing of the el Arish –Ashkelon pipeline—the fourteenth—but Israel’s concerns run deeper than a commercial deal that is now in jeopardy.  As I wrote last August, the Sinai is a haven for drug smuggling, human trafficking, gun running, and extremists of all types, ranging from Egyptian takfiris and Palestinian jihadists to al Qaeda sympathizers.  The obvious answer to the problem of security in the Sinai is to deploy more Egyptian forces in the area, a step that is subject to Israeli approval under the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.  The Israelis have actually been forward leaning on the issue, giving the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces the green light for Operation Eagle last summer and Israel’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, signaled that Jerusalem might be willing to revisit the restrictions on Egyptian forces in the Sinai.

So if the problem is not necessarily the Israelis, what is it?  In a word, Egypt. The reason for Israel’s mobilization is not only because the IDF does not believe that the Egyptian armed forces are up to the task of cleaning up the mess in the Sinai, but the Egyptian military happens to share that view.  By all measures, Operation Eagle failed and the Egyptians have no capacity to plan and execute a sustained military effort in the Sinai that would improve the security environment there.  As a result, Israeli leaders have clearly determined that if the next rocket to land on Eilat kills someone, they are going to have to deal with the problem themselves.  The Israelis have every right to defend themselves, but an Israeli attack on Egypt soil would not end well for anyone.  I guarantee it.

For I don’t know how many months, I have been counseling policymakers to take a “less is more” approach to post-Mubarak Egypt. The Sinai is the one area where the opposite is the case.  The peace treaty is a pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a result, it is incumbent upon Washington to do everything it can to mitigate anything that could result in violence between Egypt and Israel. What’s needed now is a full-court diplomatic press.  To start, the Multinational Force Observers (MFO) contingent in the Sinai need to be bolstered politically and Washington should grant it a higher profile in coordinating between Israelis and Egyptians even if the IDF and the Egyptian armed forces already enjoy pretty good military-to-military relations. The MFO, a contingent of 1,656 personnel from 12 different countries, is there to observe the peace treaty and ensure that no one violates its terms.  (As an aside, I am glad that no one listened to Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 when he proposed withdrawing U.S. support and personnel from the MFO in the Sinai.  Of course, he didn’t know that Mubarak would fall and the durability of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty would be thrown into question.)

Next, the United States should actually engage in some Sinai-related contingency planning.  I understand there are some pro forma scenarios floating around, but no serious “what if” planning.  I know the gears of the U.S. government are not all that well-greased, but it is time to get on it, as they say.  Third, the President needs to send some trusted additional advisors with good Egypt-Israel credentials out to Cairo and Jerusalem for some extended hand holding.  Ambassadors Anne Patterson (Cairo) and Dan Shapiro (Tel Aviv) are extraordinarily talented and by all measures they handled last August’s violence along the Egypt-Israel border with the kind of professional cool you want.  It would, however, signal the seriousness with which the United States takes this situation if the president dispatched some envoys to bolster his ambassadors.  There is clearly mistrust between the United States and Israel, but that does not mean Washington cannot work with the Israelis on something as critically important as Sinai security and the maintenance of the peace treaty.  Remember, George H. W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir could barely be in the same room with each other, but the United States was able to convince the Israelis of the strategic benefit of holding their fire in the face of Saddam Hussein’s Scud attacks in March 1991.  Finally, the United States needs to get down to business and help Egypt clean up the Sinai.  The Egyptians may be resistant and slow to alter their war fighting doctrine, but it’s in their long-terms interests to stabilize the Sinai.

If the United States does not wake up to the danger that the Sinai poses and the Israelis are forced to respond to a terrorist attack from the Sinai, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is over.


Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Emanuel Lowi

    I suspect that you have barely any first-hand experience of Sinai. I have lived there among the Bedouin for more than 30 years and have just returned from an extensive stay there. The Israeli occupation from 1967-1982 was abused the Bedouin in Sinai, especially in the northern Mediterranean region near the Gaza border. Mubarak’s regime continued this abuse with a harsh secret police state. Mubarak’s complicity with Israel in maintaining Gaza as the world’s largest ghetto offended the sensibilities of the people of Sinai. Sinai is not a Wild West nor is thrre any real evidence of Al Qaeda there. The problem has always been and remains Israel’s brutal policy towards Gaza and the failure of Cairo’s kleptocrats to deliver any real benefits to Sinai’s indigenous population. In this atmosphere, the vast majority of people in Sinai now dream of sovereignty and of dignity for their kinfolk in Gaza. More militarization is not the answer.

  • Posted by Maryam Aliyan

    We in South Sinai are so surprised ( to say the least) that the Egy army does not guarantee our safety. As if they want things to run out of hand. Because they are the first and foremost to do so. They do not take up their resposibility and instead of that they point at ‘foreign fingers’ each time something happens. They take (to say the least) our livelyhood away and did not yet return our men from prison. Wake up SCAF!

  • Posted by Matt

    Generally when you hand a country to extremists it does not end well. What happens is very much in the Egyptian Governments hands. The enemy gets a vote. I don’t know what the Administration was thinking but in Tel Aviv thoughts turned to instability in Sinai and a possible war between Egypt and Israel. Then it turns to what red lines does the US want Israel to allow to be crossed in relation to the peace treaty.

    While it was true Israel had neglected preparation for a conventional war in the south, yet Egypt trains in joint exercise with the US against Israel. Israel did conduct exercises in relation to a conventional war with Syria. So even though they generally fight asymmetrical and or hybrid organizations. They are not ill prepared for a conventional conflict.

    We hope not but it is not in our hands. Instability and infiltration is one way, the treaty being torn up, in which case they have not claim to Sinai. Reoccupation of Sinai, retaliation to operations in Gaza, a surprise attack.

    You have Hamas trying to cause an Israel operation on Gaza to influence the Egyptian Presidential elections. Then after you will have an extremists Government and Hamas trying to provoke conflict to bring the Egyptian military in. Then you have al-Qaida that want to bring more Egyptian troops into Sinai via promoting instability to cause a friendly fire incident between the two states to cause a war.

    That was the thing what is more important catch al-Zawahiri courier and perhaps him or let him know you are on to him to prevent a war, tie it off or let it run. Might catch him and end up with war, may not catch him and end up with war, may catch him before he could start a war. He makes a move then we run a counter, he has to expose himself again. There is no margin for error on either side. That incident that occurred could have started a war, the more troops in Sinai the higher the risk.

    al-Qaida is weak they get other people to do their fighting because they don’t have the force structure they act as the catalyst. Look how the US fights the Taliban in Afghanistan, not al-Qaida, same thing in Sinai. Everyman has a weakness and a revolution in Egypt was his. Just as the demographic of the revolution allowed them to take to the streets and takeover the revolution a war between Israel and the SCAF would aid them removing the Egyptian military. Something they are not capable doing themselves. If the Egyptian military was deconstructed they Islamists and al-Qaida are home free.

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