US Defense Secretary Mark Esper is urging the withdrawal of US troops from an international peacekeeping force in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, according to a Thursday report.
Esper is pushing for the withdrawal from the US-led force despite opposition from Israel and the US State Department, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The Multinational Force & Observers includes personnel from 13 countries. Over 400 Americans serve in the 1,100-strong international outfit.
Egypt has waged a fierce years-long battle against Islamic State militants in the northern Sinai, which has seen increased violence in recent months. On April 30, an explosion killed 10 Egyptian soldiers near the town of Bir al-Abed in the northern Sinai. On March 1, Egyptian troops killed 18 Islamic militants near the town, according to Egypt’s Interior Ministry.
Hundreds of Egyptians have been killed by militants in the Sinai in the past decade.
The peacekeeping force was founded in 1981 to help maintain the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which was signed with US backing in 1979.
US officials said the possible withdrawal is opposed by Israeli officials, who see the US presence as a curb on Egypt’s military in the region.
The US State Department opposed the move because it sees the force as a symbol of American power in the Middle East.
The troops are also an independent check on Egypt’s military activity in the Sinai. Egypt tightly restricts access to the northern part of the peninsula, claiming security risks.
US defense officials said the withdrawal would be part of US military cost-cutting measures, with Esper saying the Sinai deployment is not worth the cost or the risk to the soldiers there, the report said.
Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi recently spoke to US Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley’s spokesman said Thursday, the report said, without elaboration.
The US soldiers are housed in two bases in the Sinai — one in its restive north, where the insurgency is active, and another in the quieter resort town of Sharm el-Shekh on the Red Sea coast.
While the northern part of the Sinai is plagued by violence and largely closed to foreigners, the peninsula’s southern Red Sea coast is peaceful and a popular destination for Israeli tourists.
The Foreign Ministry, the Multination Force & Observers, the US State Department and Egyptian officials all declined to comment, the report said.
The US scaled back its involvement in the Sinai in 2016 by transferring its personnel there to more secure and centralized bases.