After a well-orchestrated media campaign (including a New York Times leader calling for the US to pull the MFO from Sinai), for preparing the ground, Washington this week presented Israel and Egypt with a detailed blueprint for covering its retreat from the strategic Egyptian peninsula in the face of rising Islamic terrorism
The preamble noted that the danger of Islamic State attack increasingly confronts the 1,600 members of the Sinai Multinational Force and Observers (MFO).
They come from 12 nations and include the Texas Army National Guard Soldiers of the 1st Squadron, 112th Cavalry Regiment, which is posted near the Sharm El-Sheikh resort town in the South, and a number of US officers based in the northern camp at Gorah near El Arish.
The authors of the plan stress that it has accordingly become necessary to “alter the MFO’s mode of operation.”
Egypt’s Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy and the policy adviser at Israel’s Defense Ministry, Amos Gilead, took the blueprint when it reached them as advance notice of Washington’s intention to withdraw from the MFO in Sinai as quickly as possible.
Since the US is the largest contributor to the MFO, with its Task Force Sinai comprising 692 military personnel, the inescapable conclusion was that once the Americans were out, the other nationals would soon follow suit and the MFO would be gone for good.
The MFO becomes redundant when treaty restrictions are eased
The US blueprint outlined three practical steps:
1. In the first stage, the force would close down 25 observations posts scattered across Sinai from north to south (see attached map) and evacuate the soldiers manning them. Each of these posts has 6-8 soldiers – some American – who would be easy prey for the Islamists – either to kill or take hostage.
Until now, the Sinai branch of ISIS has refrained from major attacks on the multinational force, possibly to avoid stirring up international support for Egypt’s fight against them in North Sinai.
But there have been incidents. On June 6, the Islamists fired shells towards Gorah airport, which is used by the MFO. There were no casualties. A more serious attack took place three years ago in September 2012, when the Gorah camp was set on fire and three foreign soldiers were injured.
2. The spread-out observation posts were set up originally to monitor the military restrictions imposed on Egypt in Sinai under the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty. But last year Israel relaxed those restrictions to let Cairo introduce a division plus and assault aircraft and helicopters to Sinai, to fight the Islamists terrorists.
The MFO suddenly became redundant.
Replacing MFO observation posts with satellite surveillance
But its observation posts stayed in place and turned their efforts to keeping watch and reporting on the illicit paramilitary forces moving clandestinely around the peninsula, including armed Palestinian groups, various smuggling rings and ISIS.
In their place, Washington is offering the services of US military satellite for surveillance over the entire peninsula.
3. It is a little known fact that one part of the MFO’s American team was stationed on the highly strategic island of Tiran, which is situated in the narrowest part of the Straits of Tiran – an important sea passage for the important ports of Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel.
A hostile force on that island, which separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba, could block Israel’s only southern outlet from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Red Sea and out to the Far East.
The tiny 230 sq, km island is part of Egypt’s Ras Muhammad National Park, although the opposing claims to its sovereignty by Egypt and Saudi Arabia have never been resolved.
The US exit will leave Tiran island and vital sea passage unguarded
The American force’s exit from the island of Tiran, along with the rest of the MFO, will leave the essential strait without oversight and the shipping using it unprotected. The Sinai Bedouin, smugglers and ISIS adherents alike, keep track from their speedboats on the ships sailing in and out of the Gulf of Aqaba and using the Suez Canal. By seizing Tiran Island after the American troops’ departure, they would control these strategic straits. The Islamic State would not only strengthen its grip in the Sinai Peninsula, but directly imperil the national security interests of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.
The US plans for Sinai, published here for the first time, left Israeli and Egyptian strategists stunned. If Washington goes through with them, the Middle East and, most of all, the Islamist State, would be free to conclude that if the Obama administration declines to stand its ground against 500 ISIS Sinai terrorists, it can hardly be relied on to fight Islamist terror anywhere else.