An American commitment to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai is important to regional stability, Lt.-Gen. Steven Blum asserted in Military Times this week.
There are concerns that US defense officials might be reexamining America’s commitment to Sinai in the wake of its decision to review its force commitments to Africa as well as to Afghanistan and other areas.
Blum is a former deputy commander of US Northern Command and a participant in the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s 2015 Generals and Admirals Program. The MFO was established in 1981 to safeguard peace between Egypt and Israel. The US has funded the role in Sinai to the tune of $30 million, his March 16 article notes.
Reports that the US was reconsidering its commitment to the MFO emerged earlier this month. US Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mark Milley reportedly was “reevaluating” America’s role, according to reports at Walla and Hamodia.
“The report quoted legal experts as saying that the US cannot withdraw from the MFO altogether, as the participation of American forces is a condition for the existence of the [Israel-Egypt] peace treaty,” Hamodia noted.
However, the US can reduce its commitment. There were once some 1,200 US personnel on the peninsula. Milley said to the House Armed Services Committee in February that America should examine whether the Sinai mission still made sense for US forces.
Today, the MFO includes slightly more than 450 US personnel. US withdrawal could “hamper the force’s mission” and lead to a domino effect of other countries pulling out, Blum wrote.
“In addition to serving in key leadership positions, the American contingent to the MFO patrols the southern portion of the demilitarized Zone C in the Sinai,” he noted. “I can attest both to the importance of their mission and the leading role that these soldiers play in advancing US interests in the Middle East.”
The MFO helps ensure there is no need for a military buildup in Sinai and also helps the US play a historic role in keeping peace between Israel and Egypt. The recent decade has seen a rise in terrorist attacks in Sinai, including attacks on Israel. Weapons smuggling to Gaza was cut off, but ISIS has attacked Egyptian towns, murdered minorities and attacked Egyptian troops.
The US is in a process of shifting from counterinsurgency and the global war on terrorism, which defined US policy for almost two decades, to building up a strategy to confront China and Russia. As part of this, the US wants to shift resources from the almost 80 countries where special forces are deployed or have been active, to do big military investments. The Trump administration has also been reticent to continue “endless wars” abroad. A new deal foresees the US withdrawing from Afghanistan.
But the role in Sinai is relatively small and inexpensive.
“Shifting the several hundred troops and a few million dollars is not sufficient to deal with near-peer competitors, and undervalues the outsized importance the limited number of American soldiers and dollars has on maintaining peace in the Sinai,” Blum asserted. “As policy-makers look to downsize America’s military footprint abroad, they should be careful not to disturb where a US presence has been highly effective. Taken alongside the withdrawals from Syria and potentially Afghanistan and Iraq, a withdrawal from the MFO would further signal that America has little commitment to Middle East stability.”
US defense officials have made frequent visits to Israel and Egypt in the last year. Milley visited Israel in November 2019. US Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie visited Egypt in June 2019 and January 2020. After meetings last year, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he views the US-Egyptian strategic relationship as a top priority, but he is also concerned about Russian influence in Egypt.