The US should keep troops in the Sinai Peninsula

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While there is much hand-wringing over President Trump’s plan to remove U.S. troops from Germany, the Department of Defense (DOD) has signaled a similar move may be forthcoming in Egypt. Fortunately, Congress seems prepared to push back on such a decision; the Senate recently inserted a 30-day notification provision into the annual defense authorization bill, should President Trump decide to draw down the number of U.S. troops stationed in Egypt. Removing the approximately 450 U.S. soldiers — who make up the backbone of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) deployed to the country to enforce the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace deal — would be a mistake for several reasons. 

First and foremost, though the U.S. has a profound interest in pivoting from the Middle East to challenge great powers such as Russia and China, it must do so without creating a power vacuum in the region that these strategic competitors would exploit. Moscow views Egypt as one of several points of entry from which it could exert power and influence in the Middle East. As America recedes from the region, Egypt is strengthening ties to Russia as a military benefactor. Egyptian purchases of Russian hardware raise the specter of interoperability between the two militaries, which would erode the United States’s ability to collaborate with the Egyptian Army. 

If the U.S. pulls its MFO contingent out of Egypt, it will clear the path for Russia to pursue a stronger foothold there, perhaps in the form of military bases of its own on Egyptian soil. This would amplify Russian power at a time when America and Russia stand on opposing sides to ongoing conflicts nearby, such as in Syria and Libya. Also, given Egypt’s geostrategic position and proximity to vital waterways in the Red Sea, a U.S. decision to pullout of Egypt would allow Russia to have greater influence over these critical chokepoints used by the U.S. Navy in its efforts to challenge China and Russia. 

Second, withdrawing troops from Egypt now would be a mistake because Cairo faces a resurgence in Islamic State activity in the Sinai Peninsula. The U.S. does not currently assist directly in this fight, but its low-cost, low-risk presence in the area — and its monitoring and intelligence-gathering function — bolsters Egypt’s capabilities at a time when its forces have been deemed both incompetent and ineffective in eradicating the jihadist threat. If the threat posed by the Islamic State is not contained, it could spill over into Israel, which would destabilize the Israel-Egyptian border and potentially result in a remilitarization of the Sinai, which the MFO was intended to prevent. 

Israel and Egypt have achieved a cold peace in large measure because of the MFO’s role as a long-term verifying entity and intermediary, but there is no guarantee that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s personal stance on cooperation with Israel will stand the test of time. The Egyptian establishment and public are far more hostile to Israel and, while el-Sisi has clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood with heavy-handed tactics, its return is not implausible. Israel’s attempt to annex parts of the West Bank only exacerbates the anti-Israel sentiment that is pervasive throughout the country. Removing the U.S. contingent to the MFO — which has been downsized several times, likely would lead to its complete dissolution. That would magnify risks posed by the Islamic State and put in jeopardy the hard-earned trust now evident in the Egyptian-Israeli bilateral relationship. 

Moreover, there are serious allegations of Egyptian war crimes in the Sinai. U.S. weapons are used by the Egyptian Army in the peninsula and there is no other monitoring entity aside from the MFO to ensure these weapons are being used in accordance with U.S. domestic and international law. The U.S. does not want to find itself in a situation like that in Yemen, where Saudi and Emirati militaries used U.S weapons, arguably making the U.S. appear somewhat complicit in their alleged war crimes.

In this light, it is imperative that the MFO remains in Egypt so that it can demand greater transparency and accountability with respect to how Egypt wages its war against the Islamic State. Although Egypt already is attempting to limit American visibility in this regard, removing the MFO would leave the U.S. completely blind. Finally, with regard to human rights violations in Egypt, a unilateral withdrawal would weaken the U.S. hand in demanding democratic reforms. Military aid and deployments such as the MFO can be leveraged to induce progress in the rule-of-law space. 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper is right that American troop deployments should be reassessed regularly to determine if the value justifies the cost. In this case, where costs in terms of both dollars and number of troops are low and value to the American national interest is high, it would be a mistake to withdraw the U.S. contingent to the MFO. 

Nicholas Saidel is a former fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL), and previously was associate director of the university’s Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response. Prior to that, he was an associate at the law firm of Wolf, Block LLP, a legislative aide to Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Tags Abdel Fattah el-Sisi Donald Trump Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty Egypt–Israel relations Mark Esper Multinational Force and Observers Sinai Peninsula

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