Securing the Sinai MFO Without a U.S. Drawdown

In the wake of a June 9 jihadist rocket attack on the Multinational Force of Observers (MFO) and other dangerous incidents, the U.S. government is reviewing the future of its military deployment in the Sinai Peninsula. While Washington does not appear to have any near-term plans to substantially alter, let alone end, its MFO deployment, the ongoing deliberations about force protection have led some outside the government — including the New York Times — to call for a U.S. troop withdrawal. Whether or not these calls are answered, the current situation bolsters the narrative that America is withdrawing from the Middle East and undermines Washington’s ongoing efforts to reassure regional allies about the Iran nuclear deal.

BACKGROUND

The MFO, which consists of military and civilian personnel from twelve nations, was founded in 1981 to supervise the security arrangements established by the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Specifically, it verifies that both countries observe the limitations on military forces and equipment within the four zones demarcated in Article II of Annex I, and also monitors freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran. The MFO carries out this mission by operating checkpoints and observation posts in Sinai and along the international boundary, and by conducting periodic verifications of the treaty’s enforcement. The force has thus been critical to ensuring the durability of Egyptian-Israeli peace for more than three decades, and in recent years it has facilitated unprecedented security cooperation between the two countries despite their notoriously “cold peace.”

Yet the MFO’s success is now raising questions in Washington about the mission’s long-term future. While Egypt and Israel strongly support keeping the MFO at its current strength — 1,667 personnel, including 692 Americans — some U.S. officials argue that this force size is no longer necessary given the depth of Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation.

NEW DANGERS

The primary reason for the latest deliberations about the MFO’s future, however, is the deteriorating security situation in Sinai. In recent months, Wilayat Sinai — a jihadist faction that was known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis until it declared itself a “province” of the so-called “Islamic State”/ISIS in November — has increasingly threatened peacekeeping forces. The most significant incident occurred on June 9, when it fired a rocket at the MFO’s al-Gorah air base. It has also fired mortars and planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on roads that the MFO uses. Meanwhile, the group has demonstrated improved capabilities against Egyptian security forces, deploying vehicle-borne IEDs, suicide bombers, and antitank missiles against police and military targets, and even hitting a navy patrol boat. For this reason, some U.S. officials believe it might only be a matter of time before Wilayat Sinai executes a major attack on the MFO.

Cairo’s outdated approach to fighting the northeastern Sinai jihadists has exacerbated these concerns…

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