American media have revealed that Defence Minister Mark Esber is seeking to withdraw 400 soldiers from the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) known as International Peacekeeping Forces, which were formed in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula under the peace treaty (Camp David), signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
The media reported that the Pentagon’s attempt to withdraw troops from Sinai is being opposed by the US and Israeli ministries of foreign affairs. “As part of the 2018 National Defence Strategy, resources priorities in the armed forces have been changed to match the threats from China and Russia,” said Pentagon spokesman Sean Robertson. “Accordingly, “Accordingly, we are reassessing the distribution of armed forces around the world in order to achieve its war readiness,” Robertson added. He said, “We are re-evaluating our armed forces operating in international forces and observation missions,” noting that the Pentagon is in contact with many institutions inside the United States and countries that will be affected by any change in the redeployment of US forces.
As for the issue of withdrawing American soldiers from the Sinai in the media, after Washington reduced its soldiers in Syria, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, Robertson said that these developments are a change in US strategy in the Middle East. American plans to reduce peacekeepers in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, in the northeast of the country, raise questions about the future of that force, and the reasons for Washington’s move at this time. It seems that the proposals will impose themselves on the agenda of talks between Egypt and the United States, as well as Israel, during the coming period.
Iranian satellite and the atmosphere of war
A number of analysts linked the sudden American decision to the US administration’s desire to “punish” some countries for the oil price war that erupted between them and Russia. The United States emerged from the recent price war as the biggest loser, as the shale oil industry was hit hard, leaving billions of dollars in corporate debt and tens of thousands of newly unemployed. The theory of punishing some countries may justify withdrawing American forces from Saudi Arabia, for example, because the oil-rich gulf state played a key role in the oil price war, but it does not explain the withdrawal of American forces from Sinai.
Israeli newspapers pointed to another reason, which is that the recently launched Iranian military satellite has caused the United States to be concerned with leaving its soldiers in conflict areas. Israeli analysts also said that the withdrawal of these forces is aimed at protecting them if an American-Iranian military confrontation erupts. Israeli analysts pointed out that there are American-Israeli discussions (with the participation of European countries) on the possibility of striking Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
This possibility, from the Israeli perspective, calls for the “redeployment” of these dispersed forces, and placing them in an appropriate combat context. This analysis means that Egypt will not be far from becoming a battleground between the United States and Iran if an open war erupts, not only with regard to the Suez Canal, but also to the American forces present in Sinai.
On the other hand, American sources say that it is a matter of US Defence Secretary Mark Esper feeling that the American military effort in North Sinai does not represent the best use of resources and is not worth the risk. The sources indicate that the Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, especially on the security and military levels, are becoming close and their need for American power has receded, and that the regime of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is committed to the security of Israel, which is reflected in the lack of violations of the treaty from the two sides.
Arab analysts say it is not unlikely that the withdrawal paper would be a kind of American pressure on the Egyptian side to bear part of the forces financing bill, according to the policy adopted by Trump, and that is centred on the policy of paying for protection.
The proposal to restructure the peacekeeping force in Sinai is not new, as it was widely publicised about five years ago, and followed by a US reduction in the size of that force by more than 30 per cent in 2015. The partial US withdrawal came after an attack claimed by Sinai Province in June 2015 against the force units at al-Joura Airport, North Sinai, with a mortar and a grad missile.
Despite the Egyptian-Israeli objection to the move, which was discussed at the Rome meeting (the headquarters of the force), about 400 soldiers were withdrawn from the force, which at that time had reached 1,900 people, and replaced with remote monitoring equipment.
Although the Egyptian army units were and are still a target of the Islamic State, the American force was not a top priority for the terrorist attack plans, despite its stationing in its main areas of operations (northeast of Sinai). In recent years, the multinational force has not been subjected to bloody attacks, most of which have been limited, ineffective, and have not resulted in deaths.
Egyptian Israeli refusal
Seemingly, the American plans for the MFO force do not have Egyptian support, and it may spark the discontent of Cairo, which understands the link between the force’s presence with American military aid provided to Egypt annually ($2.1 billion, including $815 million in economic aid, and $1.3 billion in military aid). The move raises Egyptian fears of a security vacuum in the area of al-Joura, east of Arish, where the camp and the airport are located, which might be exploited by ISIS.
As for Israel, it quickly expressed its annoyance with the move, fearing that it would increase security and military threats near the border with Egypt, calling for a discussion of the matter with the American side. Earlier, Tel Aviv considered, through a prominent general, that the proposals to reduce the number of international forces in Sinai would be “a reward for terrorism, and that dismantling any site of the force and monitors threatens to encourage militants.”
Replace not withdraw
Observers say that it is not unlikely, under the pressure of Israel and Egypt, that the move will be postponed. According to military assurances issued earlier by the Pentagon, Washington is not in the process of a complete withdrawal, as it is repositioning according to the new reality in the region, which may include the replacement of a number of soldiers with drones, and other monitoring and remote sensing devices.
This trend is reinforced by the fact that the peacekeeping force is not primarily an engagement force, but rather a follow-up force, concerned with monitoring the ceasefire between Egypt and Israel, and therefore there may be a need to assess its role, its redeployment, and perhaps assign various tasks to it.
Since 2016, American officials have been calling for the force to be moved to a camp in South Sinai, away from places of tension in the north, where Sinai Province’s cells are actively operating, and this may be an option for negotiation as well.