Egypt's Mishandling of Sinai Could Risk Unwanted Confrontation With Israel

By Steven A. Cook

Security on the Egyptian peninsula should be an issue of U.S.-Egyptian-Israel cooperation.

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An Egyptian soldier stands guard on a watchtower near the border with Israel. / Reuters

I remember in 2008 sitting in the office of Abdel Monem Said Aly who at the time was the director of the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies when the subject of the Sinai came up. It was a few months' time after Hamas had blown a hole in the wall that separates Gaza from the Egyptian frontier, resulting in thousands of Palestinians rushing into the Sinai to buy supplies and seek medical care.  Abdel Monem was not unmoved by the plight of the Palestinians, but he was clearly worried about Egyptian security.  He asked me what I thought would happen if a Palestinian extremist group were able to infiltrate Israel from the Sinai and carry out some sort of deadly attack.  "How would Israel respond?" Abdel Monem asked rhetorically.  He knew that the Israelis would respond, but how, where, and to what extent were unknowns that clearly unsettled him.  At one end of the escalation ladder, the Israelis military might try to push into the Sinai much like the Israel Defense Force's periodic advances in Lebanon or the Turkish military's incursions into northern Iraq.  This would no doubt put the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and thus Egyptian security in jeopardy. Perhaps the Israelis would use some other tactic, but either way this would create a terrible security dilemma for Egypt's leaders.  The Egyptians could absorb the blow and be forced to confront additional opprobrium of their people or they could respond and risk a conflict with Israel that they would likely lose.

Abdel Monem later became the chairman of the board of the government-controlled al Ahram Foundation and was thus by definition part of the regime.  He was pushed out of that lofty position after the uprising, though he continues to have a column at the daily newspaper, al Ahram.  Abdel Monem is a member of the widely detested felool--remnants--but he was and still is a very good strategic analyst.   Why the meditation on a meeting that happened four years ago?  You would never know it from the msm, twitter, or anywhere else, but Abdel Monem's Sinai scenarios could become a reality soon.  On Wednesday, the IDF mobilized six reserve battalions (an additional 16 were authorized and will be mobilized, if necessary) as a precautionary measure given the potential for instability in the Syria and Egypt to affect Israeli security.

This issue has been simmering for since last summer, but it seems to be heating up now.  On April 24, the Israeli prime minister called the Sinai the "Wild West."  Netanyahu was responding the bombing of the el Arish -Ashkelon pipeline--the fourteenth--but Israel's concerns run deeper than a commercial deal that is now in jeopardy.  As I wrote last August, the Sinai is a haven for drug smuggling, human trafficking, gun running, and extremists of all types, ranging from Egyptian takfiris and Palestinian jihadists to al Qaeda sympathizers.  The obvious answer to the problem of security in the Sinai is to deploy more Egyptian forces in the area, a step that is subject to Israeli approval under the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.  The Israelis have actually been forward leaning on the issue, giving the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces the green light for Operation Eagle last summer and Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, signaled that Jerusalem might be willing to revisit the restrictions on Egyptian forces in the Sinai.

So if the problem is not necessarily the Israelis, what is it?  In a word, Egypt. The reason for Israel's mobilization is not only because the IDF does not believe that the Egyptian armed forces are up to the task of cleaning up the mess in the Sinai, but the Egyptian military happens to share that view.  By all measures, Operation Eagle failed and the Egyptian have no capacity to plan and execute a sustained military effort in the Sinai that would improve the security environment there.  As a result, Israeli leaders have clearly determined that if the next rocket to land on Eilat kills someone, they are going to have to deal with the problem themselves.  The Israelis have every right to defend themselves, but an Israeli attack on Egypt soil would not end well for anyone.  I guarantee it.

For I don't know how many months, I have been counseling policymakers to take a "less is more" approach to post-Mubarak Egypt. The Sinai is the one area where the opposite is the case.  The peace treaty is a pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a result, it is incumbent upon Washington to do everything it can to mitigate anything that could result in violence between Egypt and Israel. What's needed now is a full-court diplomatic press.  To start, the Multinational Force Observers (MFO) contingent in the Sinai need to be bolstered politically and Washington should grant it a higher profile in coordinating between Israelis and Egyptians even if the IDF and the Egyptian armed forces already enjoy pretty good military-to-military relations. The MFO, a contingent of 1,656 personnel from 12 different countries, is there to observe the peace treaty and ensure that no one violates its terms.  (As an aside, I am glad that no one listened to Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 when he proposed withdrawing U.S. support and personnel from the MFO in the Sinai.  Of course, he didn't know that Mubarak would fall and the durability of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty would be thrown into question.)

Next, the United States should actually engage in some Sinai-related contingency planning.  I understand there are some pro forma scenarios floating around, but no serious "what if" planning.  I know the gears of the U.S. government are not all that well-greased, but it is time to get on it, as they say.  Third, the President needs to send some trusted additional advisors with good Egypt-Israel credentials out to Cairo and Jerusalem for some extended hand holding.  Ambassadors Anne Patterson (Cairo) and Dan Shapiro (Tel Aviv) are extraordinarily talented and by all measures they handled last August's violence along the Egypt-Israel border with the kind of professional cool you want.  It would, however, signal the seriousness with which the United States takes this situation if the president dispatched some envoys to bolster his ambassadors.  There is clearly mistrust between the United States and Israel, but that does not mean Washington cannot work with the Israelis on something as critically important as Sinai security and the maintenance of the peace treaty.  Remember, George H. W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir could barely be in the same room with each other, but the United States was able to convince the Israelis of the strategic benefit of holding their fire in the face of Saddam Hussein's Scud attacks in March 1991.  Finally, the United States needs to get down to business and help Egypt clean up the Sinai.  The Egyptians may be resistant and slow to alter their war fighting doctrine, but it's in their long-terms interests to stabilize the Sinai.

If the United States does not wake up to the danger that the Sinai poses and the Israelis are forced to respond to a terrorist attack from the Sinai, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is over.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/05/egypts-mishandling-of-sinai-could-risk-unwanted-confrontation-with-israel/256739/