Report of possible US pullout from Sinai ‘untrue,’ Israel says

American officials were said to be reconsidering deployment over fears of rising jihadist violence in peninsula

In this Nov. 6, 2014, file photo, an Egyptian armored vehicle is seen on the Egyptian side of the border across from Rafah in north Sinai. (Ahmed Abd El Latif, El Shorouk Newspaper/AP)
In this Nov. 6, 2014, file photo, an Egyptian armored vehicle is seen on the Egyptian side of the border across from Rafah in north Sinai. (Ahmed Abd El Latif, El Shorouk Newspaper/AP)

Reports that the US is considering withdrawing its forces in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula over escalating jihadist violence against Egyptian military forces are “not true,” a senior Israeli defense official said Thursday.

“These reports aren’t true. They reflects only the surmising of some people,” Amos Gilad, a former head of military intelligence who now runs the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, told Army Radio.

Media reports on Wednesday suggested the Obama administration was quietly reviewing the future of America’s three-decade deployment to the Sinai Peninsula. Options range from beefing up their protection to pulling them out altogether, American officials told The Associated Press.

The US forces have helped keep the peace between Israel and Egypt after the 1979 peace treaty signed between the former enemies. Some 700 members of an Army battalion and logistics support unit are currently there. They mainly monitor and verify compliance, and have little offensive capability. Several other countries also provide personnel.

Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad (res.), director of the Defense Ministry's office of Policy and Political-Military Affairs (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad (res.), director of the Defense Ministry’s office of Policy and Political-Military Affairs (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

“The international force is a central pillar of peace talks,” Gilad said Thursday. “Israeli-Egyptian peace relations are a strategic pillar of the region. The force is acceptable to the Americans, Egyptians, Israelis. Its budget was recently increased. The administrative and command echelons are doing everything to preserve it. None of its members have been hurt or killed,” he added.

The report was “simply not true. The Americans are deeply committed to this peace. All the partners in the force have emphasized their commitment,” he added.

While all parties are “examining and considering” their deployments in response to the “changing situation,” these discussions are not about withdrawing the forces.

“It’s a newspaper report,” he scoffed. “If the headline was ‘international force continues to do its job,’ it wouldn’t have been a headline.”

An MFO base in the northern Sinai (photo credit: courtesy/MFO)
An MFO base in the northern Sinai (photo credit: courtesy/MFO)

Egypt has battled jihadists in northern Sinai for years, but attacks against its military and police have expanded since the July 2013 coup of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, with the Islamic State affiliate based in Sinai claiming responsibility for several large-scale assaults. Egypt’s army under current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is trying to snuff out the insurgency.

For the United States, the fighting is troublesome, centered in the heart of the volatile Middle East near key maritime trading routes and alongside the most durable peace yet established between Israel and an Arab state. And it risks putting the so-called Multinational Force and Observers in the cross-hairs.

Armed primarily with light weapons, armored personnel carriers and similarly limited materiel, the forces lack the capacity to take on Islamic State or other jihadists across the sparsely populated desert territory. As a result, officials said, the Obama administration has been conducting an “inter-agency review” of the US posture in the Sinai, AP reported.

The talks have included an examination of ways to bolster the safety of the Americans there, possibly by bringing in additional equipment to better secure positions, according to senior administration officials familiar with the discussions. But the debate also has encompassed the question of bringing the US peacekeepers home, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the subject and demanded anonymity.

Although the Camp David Accords, which led to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, legally mandate the presence of the two American military units, the US can remove them — at least temporarily — if they’re in imminent danger. Still, such action could have major political implications. One official said the US does not currently believe there is an imminent threat facing the peacekeepers.

Islamic extremists may claim the US withdrawal as a victory. Regional allies already wearied by a US-led nuclear pact with Iran and America’s limited military engagement in Iraq and Syria could see any step away from the Sinai as further evidence that President Barack Obama wants out of the Middle East. And without the US contingent, it is unlikely the Multinational Force and Observers, or MFO, would be able to sustain itself much longer.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US supports the role being played by the force and was working with Egypt’s government to address the danger to American and other soldiers.

“The US is concerned over deteriorating security conditions in an area of northeastern Sinai where Egyptian security forces as well as civilian and military elements of the MFO, including the US military forces stationed at the MFO North Camp, are exposed to potential risk,” he said.

Given America’s close relationships with both Egypt and Israel, one senior official said the US would prefer not to make changes to its posture unilaterally.

Relations between the two US allies have warmed markedly under Sissi, and the two have a close security partnership. Israel has waived provisions of the peace treaty several times to allow more Egyptian forces to move into the Sinai to fight extremists, and officials have sometimes lamented that the multinational force is neither trained nor equipped to help take on the threat.

Despite the improved ties, however, the American force is still seen by both sides as an important reassurance.

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