Small Wars Journal

Status Quo in the Sinai

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Status Quo in the Sinai

Daniel Glickstein and John Miller

Egyptian Decisions

In light of the growing strength of the Sinai Province after swearing allegiance to the Islamic State, what actions can General Sisi and Egypt’s leaders take to counter the strength of the group?

The core of support for the Sinai Province (SP), and its earlier iteration as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, was the unpopularity of the Egyptian Security Forces in the Sinai as well as the effects of economic austerity measures taken by the Sisi regime. These issues have been exacerbated since the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi. What measures can the Egyptian government take to diminish the support of SP? The most obvious answer would be to institute good governance. That is, reform the security forces, especially the police, into a law-abiding institution that does not resort to torture and which treats its citizens equally with respect to the law.

However, this is not a likely scenario. The security forces have been instrumental in assuring the rule of the military and economic elite in Egypt since the time of Nasser, and they were instrumental in overthrowing Morsi and installing Sisi. Members of the security forces will expect to be rewarded for their loyalty and this level of power and patronage are essential to the “Deep State” that rules Egypt.

The second scenario involves an increase in troop levels in the Sinai in order to pursue a more traditional COIN scenario which protects the civilian population and “degrades and destroys” the ability of militants to operate in the area. However, this scenario is also complicated by Egypt’s history.

First and foremost, the terms of the Camp David Accords allow Egypt to keep only a small force in the Sinai and the Egyptians will need Israel’s permission to increase their force levels in the region. Israel granted Egypt permission to do so in 2013 and 2014, as Israel has an interest in securing its own border against SP. Unfortunately, Israel’s willingness to allow additional Egyptian forces in the Sinai provides a propaganda boon for SP; they are able to portray the Egyptian state as being complaint with Zionists. Additionally, it is not clear that Egypt is willing to pursue the level of effort necessary for a true COIN operation. Instead of dispersing their troops amongst the local population, they remain cloistered on large bases and static checkpoints along major highways.

So, what choice is Egypt likely to make? At present, it seems most clear that they will accept the status quo. The Egyptian government will continue to attempt to degrade the capabilities of SP without committing the overwhelming force needed for a COIN campaign to succeed. It is unlikely that this campaign will destroy the ability of SP to operate in the Sinai, as the state has been using this same strategy for years with little to show for it.

American Involvement

The American perspective is grim as well. Key interests are threatened: namely the stability of the Sisi regime which America has a strategic (albeit strained) relationship with, the security of Israel, and the security of the United Nations Multi-National Force of Observers (MFO) mission in the Sinai. Despite diplomatic flare-ups in recent years, the U.S. still stands to benefit from continued relations with the largest Arab state.

The U.S. currently has nearly 700 soldiers deployed to the Sinai to observe and maintain the peace between Egypt and Israel. Recently the MFO force has had to contend with insurgent aggression. The MFO Commanders’ annual reports clearly lay out a growing trend towards violence. On 27 May 2011, an MFO vehicle was struck by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). By 2012 the MFO reported repeated instances of violent demonstrations and armed blockades. On 14 Sep 2012, insurgents assaulted an MFO base camp with Molotov cocktails, broke through the perimeter, and burned a fire truck. On 13 April 2013, three MFO workers were grabbed off of a bus at gunpoint and kidnapped. In a separate incident other employees were stopped in traffic, forced to lie on the ground, and put through a mock execution by the insurgents. On 17 Jun 2013, insurgents breached the Colombian battalion’s operating base, exhibiting continually brazen and reckless behavior.

This pattern culminated recently in an IED strike which wounded four American service-members. The attack was a complex ambush; two peacekeepers were wounded in an initial strike, and insurgents laid a second IED nearby to target first-responders which hit the U.S soldiers. This tactic has been used often in Iraq and Afghanistan by various belligerents, and suggests SP’s tactics, techniques, and procedures are trending upwards in complexity. Nevertheless, the attack failed to inflict critical casualties against the Americans, suggesting that SP is still in a learning-stage with regard to execution and lethality.

 The Way Forward

Unfortunately the U.S. does not have a selection of viable options available regarding SP. As counterinsurgency canon makes eminently clear, one of the fundamental requirements in a successful COIN campaign is host government legitimacy. Any additional aid the U.S. offers negatively impacts Egyptian legitimacy. Increased materiel support from the U.S. augments Egyptian military effectiveness, but also feeds into SP’s narrative painting Egypt as a puppet of the West/Israel. And given SP’s propaganda capabilities, they will quickly identify and capitalize upon any further opportunities.  

The only significant change the U.S. can make is to update the MFO peacekeeping mandate to better reflect the increasingly violent operating environment. The original mandate spawned out of the original peace treaty and fails to address self-defense capabilities for the MFO. An updated legal mandate would remove the legal gray area regarding escalation of force and kinetic responses the peacekeeping forces can take when aggression. In addition, the U.S. can better fortify MFO bases and close those bases which are most vulnerable, such as those monitoring the Straight of Tiran.

The opinions expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not reflect those of their employers, or the United States military.

About the Author(s)

John Miller holds Bachelors’ Degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic from the University of Oklahoma His research focuses on Authoritarian Resiliency and Terrorism.

Daniel Glickstein has worked at the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute at the Army War College and studied abroad in Jordan as a Boren Scholar in 2014. He is an Army National Guard veteran and his writings have previously appeared in Parameters and The Strategy Bridge.