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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Sinai Again

by Steven A. Cook
August 6, 2012

An Egyptian soldier stands guard at a checkpoint in Rafah city on the Egyptian border (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). An Egyptian soldier stands guard at a checkpoint in Rafah city on the Egyptian border (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

In light of Sunday’s events in which a dozen Egyptian policemen were killed near the Rafah border in addition to ongoing violence in Gaza, I am re-posting three pieces I have written on Sinai over the last year.  As always, comments are welcome.  Many thanks.

 

The Wages of Sinai

Posted May 03, 2012

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 Egyptiantakfiris 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.

 

Sinai In Between Egypt and Israel

Posted September 1, 2011

Yesterday brought news that the Israeli navy was deploying two warships to an area near the Egyptian border in the Red Sea, citing concern over potential terror attacks on Israel from the area and Iranian naval maneuvers.  It is not clear what the warships would do against terrorists, unless they were being positioned as a platform for special operations forces.  The Israeli deployment likely has to do with the Iranians, but it speaks more broadly to the complexities of Egypt-Israel relations against the backdrop of Egypt’s evolving political environment.

The unprecedented (since 1979) tension between Cairo and Jerusalem in late August was a reminder that the predictably stable relationship between Egypt and Israel over the last 30 years is now over.  Egyptian public opinion wouldn’t have it any other way and it is clear that Egyptian politicians are responding to this sentiment. When Israeli forces accidentally killed five Egyptian soldiers, including an officer, a variety of would-be Egyptian presidents were quickly outmaneuvering each other to sound tough on Israel.  Interestingly, the most muted response was from the Islamist end of the political spectrum, most likely because they do not need to prove their anti-Zionist bona fides.  In any event, even the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has confirmed (and reconfirmed) that Egypt will uphold past agreements, warns that Israel must, for example, seriously negotiate on the Palestinian front, otherwise implicitly suggesting that there are consequences of ignoring public opinion for them and for Israel.

There is not much Israelis can do about Egyptian public opinion so they have focused their attention on trying to figure who they can trust and building a relationship with the SCAF. There are both good practical reasons for the Israelis to reach out to the military—the SCAF is, after all, in charge and there is a security problem in Sinai—and a more profound rationale: the officers are the only people left whom the Israelis know and with whom it is not political suicide (yet) to have contact. Still, Israel’s relationship with Egypt’s Ministry of Defense has not always been smooth. In 2007, for example, when Congress was seeking to dock part of Egypt’s military assistance, Egypt’s military establishment was hopping mad at the Israelis for what the officers believed was Israel’s role in stoking anti-Egypt sentiment on Capitol Hill. Granted, the officers are overlooking a variety of issues—police brutality, repression of peaceful protests, egregious violations of basic individual rights—that led some in Congress to try to penalize Egypt through a reduction in its annual military assistance package, but Israel’s protests to Washington about Gaza tunnel smuggling certainly contributed to congressional hostility toward Cairo.

If the SCAF is indeed Israel’s best ally in Egypt, the Israelis have a lot of work to do. It seems that the Israelis understand this and have been relatively more forthcoming than in the past concerning the deployment of Egyptian forces in Sinai.  Of course, the Israelis are very worried about chaos in Sinai and what that means for their own security—an issue that became live with the recent flare-up of violence along the Israel-Gaza border and the Egyptian-Israeli frontier.  Still, Israel’s green light for the deployment of approximately 2,500 troops in mid-August, an additional deployment of 1,500 this week, and, importantly an indication that Jerusalem may be prepared to show some flexibility on provisions that restrict Egyptian forces in Sinai, are all Israel’s way of throwing the SCAF a political bone.  The Israelis don’t always read their neighbors correctly, but they seem to have come to understand how Egypt’s limited sovereignty in Sinai hurts the SCAF politically and Israel physically.

The emerging Israeli policy is a risk, though.  It may not be so easy for a larger Egyptian force in Sinai to pacify the region, which by most accounts is awash in guns and bad guys of all varieties.  That provides further rationale for additional forces in Sinai, which dovetails nicely with the political benefits for the SCAF and virtually everyone else in Egypt associated with A larger military footprint in Sinai.  The Israelis would thus find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having enabled a fundamental change in the Camp David Accords and Egypt-Israel peace treaty without simultaneously resolving or even mitigating the Sinai security problem.  As they say in Israel, “nidfaknu.”

 

The Eagle Has Landed…In Sinai?

Posted August 17, 2011

Let’s review what’s happening in the Middle East:  Syrian forces are attacking peaceful protesters throughout the country; Iraq is cleaning up from one of the worst days of violence in recent memory; Libyan rebels are knocking on Tripoli’s door; former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s trial for murder and corruption was adjourned until September 5; Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is turning up the heat on revolutionary activists with the arrest of Asmaa Mahfouz; and in what has been dubbed “Operation Eagle,” Egypt deployed approximately 2,500 troops and somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 armored vehicles, including tanks, to al Arish, Sheikh Zuwayd, and Rafah deep into the Sinai. Just another week… Wait, the Egyptians did what?  They sent thousands of troops into the Sinai?  That’s not supposed to happen, right?  The Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty limit Egyptian military forces to an area about 30 miles east of the Suez Canal.  This is a huge story and besides a brief article in the Washington Post, a report on CNN.com, and an article in Time (yes, Time) the media has largely ignored the deployment.  Sadly, deep fried butter on a stick at the Iowa State Fair has received way more coverage over this weekend than a military move that has the potential to alter longstanding agreements between Egypt and Israel.

Here is what is happening:  Since Mubarak’s departure for Sharm el Sheikh on February 11th and the collapse of the Ministry of Interior, the Sinai has grown increasingly chaotic.  In the last six months, Egypt’s pipeline infrastructure in the region has been attacked four times, there was a brazen assault on the port of Nuweiba, a call for the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Sinai, and the implementation of shari’a.  The Sinai has long been a hotbed of smuggling—weapons, drugs, and people—a hideout for extremists (reportedly including elements loyal to al Qaeda); and anger on the part of Bedouin groups over the way they are treated at the hands of the police and intelligence service.  Beyond these immediate problems, the Sinai is the least developed part of the country and as a result, has the highest unemployment rate among all of Egypt’s 29 governorates.  Many of the Bedouin in the Sinai have no particular allegiance to Egypt.

It was the July 30 attack on an al Arish police station, an attempted assault on one of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Company’s—the consortium that buys gas from Egypt and sells it to Israel—facilities near al Arish, and the distribution of leaflets there calling for the implementation of Islamic law in North Sinai that seem to have gotten the SCAF’s attention.  The military, worried about security in the Sinai and wanting to demonstrate (to the United States, primarily) that the armed forces have both a firm grip on the country and that Egyptian military remains a force for regional stability, apparently sought out the Israelis to coordinate the deployment.

The Israelis find themselves with a dilemma on their hands.  From their perspective the Sinai has been a festering security problem for over a decade.  They have looked on with amazement as the Egyptians have done very little to address the social ills of the region, warned Cairo that there was al Qaeda presence in the area (something the Egyptians denied until 2005), and have grown concerned as the border restrictions between Gaza and Egypt have recently been eased.  Yet what choice did they really have?  They agreed to the deployment of two battalions from Egypt’s 2nd Army because the alternative, the Sinai spinning completely out of control, is worse and the Israeli security establishment wants to demonstrate goodwill toward the SCAF with whom it hopes to build a new relationship.  The Israelis are nevertheless nervous about the effectiveness of the Egyptian forces and whether the deployment will begin the process of altering the restrictions on Egyptian military activity in the Sinai. There is no time limit on the Egypt’s military operations.  For now, it is subject to review—whatever that means.  The Egyptians insist that they will leave when their operations are complete.  Yet, if the security situation in the Sinai is as bad as some suggest, it may well be some time before Egyptian forces leave. Even after Operation Eagle is brought to an end one could imagine Cairo making the argument that the military needs to stay in the Sinai to ensure security.

A more secure Sinai is a good thing for everyone, but any effort well beyond their 30-mile limit (the is no evidence so far that this is the SCAF’s intention) has a clear political benefit for the officers because so many Egyptians want to revisit the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty.  For now, the Israelis apparently believe being flexible about past agreements is worth the risk.  At the moment countenancing Egyptian forces in the Sinai is certainly better than a further deterioration of the Sinai’s security and someone taking a shot at Eilat from there.  Of course, there is always the possibility that Egypt’s operations will, in unintended ways, contribute to the Sinai’s problems.  The twitter feed suggestion that the Sinai will become “Egypt’s Waziristan” is no doubt exaggerated, but it is yet another significant challenge in the extraordinarily complex problem of building the new Egypt.  The struggle for Egypt continues…

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