Pentagon ready to help Egyptians rolling into Sinai

After a mass uprising, an Islamist leader wins the Egyptian presidency, defies the entrenched and stable military regime and its puppet supreme court, stages a mini-coup to oust the oligarchical military chief, installs a shadowy and sympathetic intelligence figure as new top general, and then promptly rolls tanks into the Sinai. So far, so good, ...

STR/AFP/GettyImages
STR/AFP/GettyImages
STR/AFP/GettyImages

After a mass uprising, an Islamist leader wins the Egyptian presidency, defies the entrenched and stable military regime and its puppet supreme court, stages a mini-coup to oust the oligarchical military chief, installs a shadowy and sympathetic intelligence figure as new top general, and then promptly rolls tanks into the Sinai.

So far, so good, according to the Pentagon.

"We have offered to support Egyptian-led efforts to improve security in the Sinai," a Defense Department spokesman said, in a statement to The E-Ring, following last week's Egyptian military announcement that new troop movements -- including tanks, according to pictures of troop staging areas -- were underway as part of a new push to crack down on terrorists hiding out on the peninsula.

After a mass uprising, an Islamist leader wins the Egyptian presidency, defies the entrenched and stable military regime and its puppet supreme court, stages a mini-coup to oust the oligarchical military chief, installs a shadowy and sympathetic intelligence figure as new top general, and then promptly rolls tanks into the Sinai.

So far, so good, according to the Pentagon.

"We have offered to support Egyptian-led efforts to improve security in the Sinai," a Defense Department spokesman said, in a statement to The E-Ring, following last week’s Egyptian military announcement that new troop movements — including tanks, according to pictures of troop staging areas — were underway as part of a new push to crack down on terrorists hiding out on the peninsula.

It’s a pledge that raises several thorny questions, given peace treaties preventing Egypt or Israel from deploying heaving weaponry to the Sinai, and the unpredictable twists and turns that have so far marked the presidency of Mohammed Morsi. The same week that he ordered the maneuvers on the peninsula, Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader whom American politicians of all stripes have warned about, went to Tehran’s Non-Aligned Movement summit and gave the Ayatollah a big Bronx cheer by rooting for Syria’s rebels to oust the Iranian-backed regime of Bahsir al-Assad.

Hooray for… Morsi? That may be simplifying it, but that’s the general reaction inside the Pentagon.

"Both Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey have reiterated U.S. commitment to the defense relationship with their Egyptian counterparts," said Lt. Col. Wesley "Jack" Miller, Defense Department press officer for Middle East policy, in a statement. "[Egyptian] Minister of Defense Al Sisi and Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces Sedkey have confirmed their commitment to the defense relationship, the Peace Treaty with Israel, regional stability, and preventing the Sinai from becoming an ungoverned space."

"We will continue to work with Egypt’s civilian and military leaders to advance our many shared interests. In particular, we are ready to help President Morsi and the military as they continue to work to prevent extremists from operating in the Sinai." Pentagon officials declined to say specifically what kind of help they’re prepared to give.

The U.S. military has been closely eying the Egyptian power handoff, one painfully slow, democratic step at a time for months. To U.S. officials, the only reassuring evidence that the revolution would not turn into pure anti-American chaos was that Pentagon-friendly Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi was still in power. But after Morsi won the presidency, the concern in the Pentagon wasn’t whether jihadists would rule the nation — it was whether Tantawi would keep his promise to relinquish power to the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood or force Egypt into a political standoff. It was a problem Morsi swiftly resolved by sacking Tantawi and replacing him with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The move took the Pentagon by surprise.

"No one notified us in advance of the leadership changes, but we never considered such changes out of the realm of possibility," a U.S. official conceded on Wednesday.

When Panetta visited Egypt in August, he said there was no talk in his meetings about sending additional troops to the Sinai, only that Egypt had a security responsibility to maintain there — a tacit approval for the public and Egypt’s neighbors to hear. Egypt already had retaliated for the August 5 killing of 15 border guards, and more action was clearly expected.

On August 29, Egypt’s defense ministry said, "There will be a redeployment of forces in various locations in Sinai to complete the hunt for terrorist elements."

Last week, the Pentagon says that the Egyptians and Israelis are talking to each other, which was a good sign. On Tuesday, Reuters reported from the region that Egypt was replacing 20 tanks in the Sinai with armored vehicles, following Israeli complaints.

By now Morsi already is considered an unpredictable player. It’s anyone’s guess how far he’ll go in Sinai.

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