Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, commanding general, 1st Theater Sustainment Command, visits with soldiers assigned to Task Force Sinai in Egypt in 2019.

Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, commanding general, 1st Theater Sustainment Command, visits with soldiers assigned to Task Force Sinai in Egypt in 2019. U.S. Army

Washington Should Avoid a Self-Inflicted Wound in the Sinai

Withdrawing from the Multinational Force and Observers might be penny-wise, but would certainly be pound-foolish.

Following Israel’s establishment of diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on Sept. 15, there is much to celebrate in the positive trajectory in Israel’s relations with several Arab countries. In light of this progress, it is reasonable for Americans to ask why U.S. troops should continue to serve in the Sinai to prevent conflict between Israel and Egypt – two governments that made peace more than four decades ago.

In fact, as part of the Pentagon’s ongoing review of U.S. global military posture designed to free up finite resources for higher priorities, Defense Secretary Mark Esper would like to end the U.S. military’s role in the Multinational Force and Observers, or MFO, an independent international organization designed to maintain peace between Israel and Egypt. A review, however, of the MFO and its relationship to key objectives in the 2018 National Defense Strategy demonstrates that withdrawing the U.S. military contingent from the MFO would represent a penny-wise and pound-foolish mistake.

The MFO’s mission is to “supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace and employ best efforts to prevent any violation of its terms.” Today, the MFO consists of about 1,160 troops in the Sinai from 13 nations. The American military contingent is the largest, with 454 service members, down from more than 1,150 service members in 1986. Almost half of the U.S. troops come from the Army National Guard or Reserve.

In addition to personnel in the Sinai, the MFO maintains a headquarters in Rome and offices in Cairo and Tel Aviv. The combination of observers on the ground with offices in Egypt and Israel provides the MFO director general the ability to speak authoritatively on developments in the Sinai using a unique and direct line of communication with both countries. This line of communication, according to Anne Patterson, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt from 2011 to 2013, is difficult for any third country or embassy to emulate. The extraordinary mixture of assets has helped the MFO prevent war between Egypt and Israel for almost four decades — a stark contrast to five wars involving Egypt and Israel in the 33 years preceding the MFO’s establishment. 

Some are tempted to undervalue this accomplishment by dismissing peace as an inevitable outcome or foregone conclusion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider the MFO’s role during the crisis of August 2012. Jihadists killed 16 Egyptian border guards and then used their armored vehicles to attack Israeli forces, as described in a May 2020 Washington Institute for Near East Policy report by Assaf Orion, an Israeli reservist brigadier general, and Denis Thompson, a retired Canadian major general. Cairo then sent a massive military force into Sinai that was not coordinated with Israel, sparking grave concern there.

Orion and Thompson note that Ambassador David Satterfield, then the director general of the MFO, shuttled between Egypt, Israel, and the Sinai “narrowing the gaps in understanding, carrying messages, bringing Washington’s weight and interests to the table, and devising procedures to address the new situation and allay the parties’ concerns.” 

Orion and Thompson argue persuasively that the MFO’s “unique combination [of] unwavering U.S. support, world-class diplomacy, high levels of access and trust in both capitals, excellent field-monitoring capabilities, and the U.S. military as a backbone” was key to defusing tensions that could have led to war. 

Some may dismiss this anecdote as no longer relevant due to the relatively stable and constructive relations that Jerusalem and Cairo currently enjoy. However, a review of events in Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011-2012 caution against confident predictions regarding the future course of events in the Middle East. That is especially a concern in cases such as Egypt, where ill feeling in the general population toward Israel remains widespread.

While the future of the Middle East remains unclear, the benefits of the MFO to U.S. national security interests are quite clear. The NDS established that one of America’s top security priorities is “[d]efending allies from military aggression.” The MFO has helped do just that for Israel – America’s closest and most reliable ally in the Middle East.

Furthermore, the NDS says, “We will foster a stable and secure Middle East that denies safe havens for terrorists, is not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and that contributes to stable global energy markets and secure trade routes.”

It is worth considering how the MFO supports each of the four major sub-elements contained in that policy statement. The MFO has played an indisputable role in facilitating a more “stable and secure Middle East.” In addition to the benefits for the two countries, their peace has also served as a foundation for Israel’s peace with Jordan in 1994, and ultimately Israel’s peace with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain this year. A new conflict between Egypt and Israel, while thankfully an unlikely prospect in the near-term, would be a catastrophe for the region and for the United States. Even if such a development seems far-fetched for now, military analysts understand that risk is measured in terms of both likelihood and severity, and it is unwise to neglect the latter consideration. 

The NDS also prioritizes denying “safe haven for terrorists.” The Sinai is home to a significant terrorist insurgency that includes militants who have sworn allegiance to ISIS. The confidence that Israel has in the MFO’s treaty verification processes allows Egypt to deploy additional combat power into Sinai to address the ongoing insurgency. The MFO’s ability to monitor these exceptional temporary deployments mitigates Israel’s legitimate concerns about the re-militarization of Sinai. The transparency and communication channels provided by the MFO’s sophisticated and multi-layered liaison process have been indispensable in navigating this process.

The U.S. military contingent in the MFO also supports the NDS’s objective of contributing to “stable global energy markets and secure trade routes” in the Middle East. While this objective is certainly not part of the MFO’s mission, it is worth remembering that the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important maritime and energy chokepoints, sits adjacent to the Sinai Peninsula. According to the Energy Information Agency, oil flowing through the Suez Canal and nearby SUMED pipeline accounted for roughly 9 percent of total worldwide seaborne traded petroleum in 2017. Similarly, they were responsible for 8 percent of global liquefied natural gas trade as well. The Suez Canal is also incredibly important to the U.S. Navy, which regularly sends vessels through the canal. Having a U.S. military force near the important chokepoint that connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean is an asset not to be relinquished lightly.

Finally, the U.S. military presence in the Sinai also supports the NDS’s goal of ensuring the region is “not dominated by any power hostile to the United States.” Underscoring the fact that great power competition occurs in the Middle East too, the Russian navy is increasingly active in the eastern Mediterranean, while Russian regular and irregular forces operate in Syria and Libya. Moscow works hard to cultivate relationships with Cairo, conducting a large air defense exercise in Egypt in 2019 and helping the country build a nuclear reactor. 

Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China established its first overseas military outpost in Djibouti in 2017 at the opposite end of the Red Sea from the Suez Canal. As part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese companies pursued a lease arrangement at Israel’s Haifa port and ownership of Greece’s port of Piraeus.In short, it is difficult to imagine Moscow and Beijing not leaping to take advantage of any unforced American error in the Sinai. 

It does not take much imagination to envision a scenario in which a U.S. withdrawal from the MFO results in the collapse of the organization. The United States provides the largest portion of force protection capability for the MFO, and most of the other nations contribute troops to the MFO based on their relationship with Washington. If Washington were to pull the U.S. military contingent from the MFO, many other troop-contributing nations would worry for the safety of their forces. Some nations would also no longer see any serious benefit in retaining troops there in terms of their relationship with the United States.

It would hardly be surprising to see Beijing or Moscow step into the vacuum created by an American departure, seeking to work with Cairo to establish a new civil or military presence in the Sinai. Ironically, in such a scenario, an American effort to reduce a modest military commitment in the Sinai to compete more effectively with China and Russia elsewhere would give Beijing and Moscow an opportunity to establish a coveted strategic outpost vital to energy, economic, and military security at the intersection of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Thankfully, key leaders in Congress appreciate the bigger picture. In an extraordinary bipartisan broadside, the Democrat and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Appropriations Committees sent a letter to Secretary Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regarding the MFO on May 13. The members of Congress warned that a withdrawal of the U.S. contingent from MFO would represent a “grave mistake” that could “ultimately make it more difficult to implement the NDS.”

The Pentagon is right to review U.S. military posture in every combatant command to ensure an optimal military posture that fully aligns ends and means. In the Middle East, an objective review would demonstrate that ending the modest U.S. military contribution to the MFO would endanger key NDS objectives and represent a short-sighted and self-inflicted wound to American national security interests.

The views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Strategic Command, the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Major Major Amoreena York is a U.S. Army officer who deployed in support of Multinational Force and Observers and served as a visiting military analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.