Sinai ‘Basically a War Zone’ Says Expert, as Pentagon Plans Changes to Observer Deployments

By Genevieve Belmaker | April 28, 2016 | 6:26pm EDT
U.S. National Guard and Reserve soldiers make up the largest faction of the 12-nation Multinational Force and Observers. (Photo: MFO)

Jerusalem ( – Pentagon plans to replace some U.S. military observers in the Sinai with technology comes amid increasing violence and instability in the area, where Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) affiliates are carrying out a deadly insurgency.   

One Mideast expert said the sparsely-populated desert peninsula between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean has become “basically a war zone,” and U.S. and other foreign observers are operating under limited rules of engagement.

About 700 active-duty National Guard and Reserve soldiers are stationed in the Sinai as the largest faction of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), a 12-nation group that monitors the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

ISIS affiliates have been increasingly active in the northern part of the Sinai over the past two years. In October 2014, dozens of Egyptian soldiers were killed and more were injured in attacks claimed by one local affiliate of the terrorist organization.

The MFO has also been caught in the crossfire. Last September, an MFO convoy hit two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and four soldiers were injured. In August, an MFO soldier was shot, and earlier in the year an ISIS-linked group claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on an MFO-operated airport.

Despite the attacks, the U.S. administration has said plans to modernize and automate some peacekeeping work does not signal a withdrawal.

“We’re in constant consultation with Egypt, with Israel, about when we look at how to restructure, how to re-posture ourselves on the ground in the Sinai,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said earlier this month. “ These are part of ongoing consultations.”

The MFO declined to comment, saying it response to emailed queries that it “does not comment on reports in the media nor does it provide interviews.”

Some soldiers in the Sinai are evidently concerned, though.

“Someone in DC needs to change the policy on this area,” one soldier wrote anonymously in an email to Army Times last December. “[ISIS] is here and conducting operations around us and sometimes against us.”

Omar Lamrani, a senior military and Middle East analyst for the U.S.-based global intelligence group Stratfor, said things are already changing. Lamrani said 100 soldiers have already been shifted from the north to the less dangerous south. Discussions are also underway to replace soldiers with technology like remote sensors.

The use of technology could prove more effective than a human presence, and less risky.

“The MFO is extremely limited in terms of rules of engagement,” said Lamrani. “They’re not there to fight, and they just carry out inspection. The only thing they have to defend themselves is small arms in case they get attacked.”

He said though it “hasn’t been catastrophic” yet, there are serious implications to increasing violence in the Sinai. The situation worsened when former President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in mid-2013.

“It’s basically a war zone at this point,” said Lamrani. “Islamic State affiliates are taking an active insurgency in the Sinai.”

The most significant of those affiliates is Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) which pledged allegiance to ISIS in late 2014 and has been acknowledged by the terrorist group. According to Omrani, ABM is behind much of the current trouble in the Sinai, including ambushes, small arms fire, IEDs, and the use of mortars and rockets.

Locals have long carried out occasional attacks, but the ISIS affiliation has attracted new recruits to ABM and made way for other types of support and training.

Despite uncertainties, the U.S. has very publicly reaffirmed its commitment to regional security. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford met with leaders in Cairo in March and again in late April.

Details about what kinds of technology may be used to replace troops are sparse. Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, says there’s no little cause for concern, however. He said Israel was consulted about – and agreed to – the shift.

“If the U.S. decides to replace the deployment of troops or monitors in the Sinai by electronic means, this doesn’t change dramatically the situation,” he said.

Oded foresees a potentially different risk in relation to Saudi Arabia. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi recently controversially handed over two islands in the Red Sea to the Saudis.

“The problem may arise if the Saudis do not follow the Egyptian pattern of behavior,” he said.

At the same time, Oded said historical trends were cause for optimism.

“The Saudis have a long coast to the Red Sea where Israeli shipping is moving constantly and carrying freight from and to Israel, and there hasn’t been any problem since 1948,” he noted.

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