Sinai insurgency reshaping region through chaos

May 06, 2016, 1:14 PM EDT
Sinai, Egypt.
(Source: Ronald Woan/flickr)

The ISIS insurgency in Sinai continues to bedevil Egypt and keep the region locked in uncertainty. A bipartisan U.S. Congressional delegation visited hundreds of American soldiers (part of long-standing international peacekeeping forces) at their camp in North Sinai on Thursday, with Senator Michael McCaul calling for a greater U.S. role to eliminate, not just contain, ISIS. This was just one day after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi decreed that the state of emergency in North Sinai be extended another 3 months, with anyone out during extensive curfew hours to be arrested.

Blouin News detailed the effects of the Sinai insurgency on Egyptian politics in January (at the five year anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow), and the continued death toll of soldiers and policemen there make a mockery of Cairo’s claim to be winning. Despite the Egyptian military's efforts, the threat of the ISIS branch is so potent that it is changing the geopolitical status quo in the region.

The cooperation between Egypt and Israel over their shared concerns about both ISIS and Hamas is “unprecedented,” said Israeli Defense Forces Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Yair Golan last month. Both countries have beefed up border security to prevent ISIS infiltration, as has Hamas. In late April the terrorist group ruling Gaza deployed several hundred fighters to the border with Egypt as part of a deal with Cairo to keep out ISIS militants. There is no cooperation between Israel and Hamas, but when it comes to ISIS they are working towards the same goal.

Bucking the trend, the U.S. intends to reduce its 700 peacekeeping troops in Sinai by a third given the danger involved. They comprise about half of the multinational force (MFO), which was established under the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Washington is concerned that American soldiers could be injured in the crossfire or possibly taken captive as fighting rages between ISIS and Egyptian forces. Cairo and Jerusalem have objected to Washington’s proposed withdrawal, but they may not be able to prevent it.

The multinational forces are more of a monitoring and deterring force; they are not actively part of the anti-ISIS campaign. The Jewish Press wrote:

After discussions with Israel, Egypt has expressed willingness to move some of the peacekeeper forces to the center and southern sections of the region. Technical monitoring equipment would be used to replace the missing forces in the northern Sinai. It’s not clear how effective such a strategy would be, however. Then again, it’s also not clear how effective the presence of the MFO has actually been as a deterrent against terrorist activity either.

So it seems the political impact of withdrawing U.S. troops would outweigh any military impact -- it would be a vote of no-confidence in Egypt’s ability to win the war. Granted, Sisi’s regime has its share of human rights abuses, but do we really want to alienate an important ally in the global fight against ISIS?