April 7, 2016 | Policy Brief

U.S. mulls pulling Sinai peacekeeping force

April 7, 2016 | Policy Brief

U.S. mulls pulling Sinai peacekeeping force

The United States is considering pulling its roughly 700 troops out of a base its forces have occupied for three decades in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, CNN reported Tuesday.

It is not the first time officials have raised the possibility of reconfiguring the U.S. contingent in Sinai – which makes up roughly half of the international force – or even withdrawing it altogether. Last August, reports emerged that the Obama administration was quietly reviewing the mission amid a five-year Islamist insurgency in the peninsula, now led by the Islamic State affiliate “Sinai Province,” that has cost Egypt the lives of an estimated 700 troops, security forces, and police.

In September 2015, the U.S. closed a small, remote base in northeast Sinai after four U.S. servicemen were injured in twin roadside attacks attributed to Sinai Province. The month after that, the same group brought down a Russian passenger jet, killing 224 people and stoking further concerns over force safety in the peninsula.

The Sinai peacekeeping force, known as the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), was formed in 1981 in the wake of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Its patrols are conducted mainly from two bases – North Camp and South Camp – as well as some 20 remote sites spread throughout the landmass. It is North Camp, in the northeastern Sinai near the borders with Israel and the Gaza Strip, that Washington is reportedly contemplating evacuating due to its vulnerable location in the heart of the insurgency.

Reviewing the mission is understandable. Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation on Sinai is closer than ever, as both sides share an interest in quelling the insurgency and cutting ties between Islamic State fighters in Sinai with Hamas. While the 1979 peace treaty limits the troop numbers, types of personnel, and arms that Egypt may deploy to the peninsula, Cairo has on countless occasions asked Israel to exceed those confines, and virtually every time the Jewish state has agreed.

In such circumstances, the impact of the MFO – with its light weapons and a mandate limited mainly to observation – is minimal. Moreover, U.S. peacekeepers have increasingly become a target for the extremists, either inadvertently – as attacks against Egyptian Army patrols in North Sinai could hit MFO troops instead – or intentionally, in retaliation for coalition strikes on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, the world’s superpower abandoning a base it has manned for three decades out of fear of extremist attacks sends precisely the wrong message to the Islamic State.

The U.S. decision to stay or go – from North Camp or from Sinai entirely – may ultimately come down to which of two images Washington seeks to project. First is the positive symbolism of America upholding its commitment to keep peace between two key Mideast allies, and its commitment to continue fighting the Islamic State. Second, and no less consequential, is the potentially tragic image of U.S. soldiers returning in body bags from a mission whose importance to leaders in Cairo, Jerusalem, and Washington is increasingly in question.

Oren Kessler is deputy director for research and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @OrenKessler