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Withdrawing US troops from the Sinai could break a fragile peace

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reportedly is considering ending America’s 40-year  peacekeeping presence in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. His impulse isn’t new; the Obama administration also contemplated removing U.S. troops from harm’s way in the Sinai because of escalating threats posed by ISIS and other Salafist militias. The idea was to replace soldiers with drone surveillance and other high-technology warning systems. 

American troops have been stationed in the Sinai since the U.S.-mediated 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, which returned the peninsula to Egypt in exchange for diplomatic relations with Israel. A cold peace has endured since, benefiting both countries. 

The treaty called for a multinational force that has monitored the area since 1982, with the largest contingent from the United States. For many years this was an easy assignment, but after the Arab Winter of 2011 things began to change. First, the Egyptian people elected Mohamed Morsi as president, elevating the Muslim Brotherhood to power and destabilizing the relationship with Israel. The Brotherhood is an Islamist organization and the parent of Hamas, and the Israeli fear was that an open border between the Sinai and Gaza under Morsi’s government would allow weapons and money to freely flow to terrorists.

Fortunately, the Egyptian people rose up against the Morsi government and returned the presidency to another authoritarian military leader who viewed the Brotherhood as a threat and saw Hamas as an enemy. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi values his nation’s relationship with Israel and the United States, despite American criticism of his reported human rights abuses and U.S. financial punishment for his instigating the 2013 coup that ousted Morsi. Israel lobbied the Obama administration not to decrease aid to Egypt, because that would undermine the peace treaty. 

In the wake of the failed Arab Winter, neighboring Arab regimes became vulnerable and into the vacuum stepped ISIS with its goal of worldwide jihad and hegemony. ISIS’s brutal killings, misogyny and kidnappings stunned the world into action. As its caliphate grew, it propagated branches throughout the Muslim world, including the Sinai, where jihadists killed scores of Egyptian civilians and soldiers, making the territory a no-man’s land. This destabilized Egypt and threatened Israel from its south.

In response, the United States withdrew into its two main bases, one in the northern Sinai and one in the south near Sharm el-Sheikh. This is similar to what the U.S. did last year in Iraq when it withdrew troops from more vulnerable outlying outposts to reposition them into more defensive positions at large bases. However, unlike in Iraq, American soldiers in the Sinai are not often targeted, especially in the south. And the U.S. presence plays an important intelligence and monitoring role for both Israeli and Egyptian security. 

With the coronavirus pandemic, all branches of the U.S. government are under pressure to decrease spending, which may be why the Department of Defense would consider ending the U.S. presence in Sinai, despite a commitment to remain there indefinitely.

Does it still benefit the U.S. to keep peacekeeping forces in the Sinai? Unlike in Iraq, where the parliament voted for a complete American troop withdrawal after the U.S. assassinated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards leader Qassem Soleimani in January, both Israel and Egypt want the U.S. to remain in the Sinai as a force for stability. In the U.S., there has been bipartisan support for continuing the multinational force.  

From an Israeli security perspective, withdrawal is disconcerting. This month, Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kochavi communicated this position to his American counterpart, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Israel counts on America’s presence and is concerned about Egypt’s military, despite the peace treaty. Egyptian military strategists still consider Israel the leading military threat, although Israel has allowed Egypt to move more military assets into the Sinai to fight ISIS and the continued Salafist insurgency. There is no assurance that a future Egyptian military leader will respect the treaty, or would ever consider demilitarizing the Sinai.

Middle East security can change in an instant. Egypt attacked Israel in three wars, and today’s Egyptian people are still fed anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric. This can create fertile ground for future conflicts, as can the poverty in which many of Egypt’s 90 million people live.

If the U.S. leaves the Sinai, it could empower Islamists to step up attacks not only there but in the Egyptian heartland. A collapsing Egypt would threaten not only Israel but also its neighbors and the world at large, because it could become a staging ground for terrorist operations, threaten international shipping through the Suez Canal, and make possible the Brotherhood’s return to power.  

It was a mistake for President Obama to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2011 and for President Trump to try to leave Syria’s Kurds in 2019. It would similarly be a mistake to remove American forces from the Sinai because it would show the world that the U.S. is an unreliable ally.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides on the geo-politics of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.

Tags Donald Trump Egypt Israel Mark Esper Middle East Muslim Brotherhood Sinai Peninsula

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