- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.
It has been evident for some time that, regardless of all his other missteps in the Middle East, President Obama has succeeded in one respect where all his predecessors have failed: he has brought Israel and the Arabs, particularly the Gulf Arabs, more closely together than ever, united in their suspicion and disillusionment with Washington’s policies in the region.
Now he has gone one step further. He is preparing to redeploy the small American contingent that mans the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai, on the grounds that the safety of the MFO is threatened by the Islamist terrorist insurrection against Egypt’s Sisi regime. The Islamic State is the primary reason why Obama is ready to move American forces from the El-Gorah camp, near the Gaza Strip, to a base near Sharm e-Sheikh in the southern part of the peninsula, where IS poses less of a threat. In preparing for the MFO’s withdrawal, however, Washington has ensured that Cairo and Jerusalem not only will continue to work ever more closely together, but will increasingly do so without taking U.S. interests into account.
The MFO is a unique institution. It was created in 1981 as an offshoot of the 1978 Camp David accords, to ensure that both Egypt and Israel adhered to agreed-upon limitations on the buildup of military forces in the Sinai. Nominally under U.N. auspices, the MFO currently consists of under 2,000 troops and civilians from a dozen countries, of which some 700 are from United States. The unit, headquartered in Rome, operates checkpoints, maintains reconnaissance patrols, ensures freedom of navigation through the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba, and regularly verifies all the other terms of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty as they apply to the Sinai peninsula.
The IS offshoot that operates in the northeastern region of the Sinai peninsula came into being in 2011 and was originally known as Ansar Bait al-Makdis (Supporters of Jerusalem); its primary target was Israel. With the collapse of the Morsi government in Cairo, and the June 2014 election of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president of Egypt, the group pledged allegiance to the self-declared IS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in November of that year, and changed its name to the Islamic State. Although it is not the only Islamist group operating in the Sinai, it is viewed as the most dangerous; it claimed responsibility for shooting down a Russian tourist plane in September 2015, killing all of its 224 passengers.
The Obama administration argues that it can monitor troop movement using unmanned systems and therefore need not put personnel at risk. Moreover, in practice, Israel already has permitted Egypt to deploy its security forces further into the Sinai than the Accords allow. Its willingness to ignore the relevant Annex to the 1979 Treaty with Egypt has enabled Cairo to take the fight to the militants, who are supported by Hamas, while there are constant reports that the Israel Defense Forces provide intelligence to support the anti-IS operations of their Egyptian counterparts.
Were the Obama administration’s planned redeployment an isolated move, it might not be a cause for much concern in Jerusalem and Cairo. Nevertheless, in a region where perception is not only seen as reality, but often creates it, any change to the MFO’s operations will take on far greater significance than the mere re-stationing of a force the size of a small battalion. In the context of Obama’s reluctance to devote significant resources to carry out the destruction of the Islamic State, the redeployment of the MFO would appear as a first step toward the unraveling of American commitments under the Camp David Accords, the basis of the billions of dollars that Washington has transferred to both Israel and Egypt since 1979. And just as both Israel and Egypt will continue to work together in the Sinai, they both are likely to strengthen their already burgeoning ties with Russia, the once and now again other major power in the Middle East. Score another potential strategic victory for Vladimir Putin, and another major misstep by the Obama administration.
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