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May 26, 2020 5:50 am

Keeping the Peacekeeping: Why Withdrawing US Troops From Sinai Is a Dangerous Idea

avatar by Ben Luria


US President Donald Trump meets with Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House in Washington, US, April 9, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

According to recent reports, the US administration is pushing to withdraw its forces from their peacekeeping mission in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The mission, Multinational Force & Observers (MFO), has been deployed since 1981 as part of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

Understandably, with the focus on COVID-19, the deployment status of 400 troops in the Middle East may not sound like important news.

But the risk of such an action, contrary to what some advocates say, may prove fatal to the region and US interests, leading to harsh outcomes both in the short and long term. The desire to put America first in this case might very well cause more chaos, leaving the US and the world to deal with preventable turmoil in the fragile region.

The first risk of such an action is causing a resurgence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the peninsula. Throughout the years, the Islamic State has succeeded in bringing down a Russian passenger jet, killing over 300 people in a mosque attack, and carrying out countless terror attacks. Its threat was crucial enough at times to lead to Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, according to some reports. Even in the last month, reports arose about attacks claiming the lives of Egyptian soldiers.

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The success of the US in pushing back the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in recent years has been a tremendous step in stabilizing the region. The problem with a frequent success, however, is that it blinds us to the possibility of failure. The diminishing of ISIS is not a given — once the effort to curb down the insurgency is reduced, it might rise back even stronger.

It is in vacuums that terrorist organizations gain overwhelming power, and this is also what allowed the Islamic State’s initial rise in Iraq. The resources dedicated to preserve the current mission of about 400 soldiers are but a mere footnote in US foreign and defense policy in the grand scheme of things. The same amount of resources that will be saved for such an act, could very much prove insignificant compared to the cost of yet another rise of preventable turmoil in the Middle East.

The second risk that this act poses would be perhaps less observable but nonetheless crucial — undermining US credibility in the region and the world when it comes to sustaining security agreements. The MFO was initiated by agreement between the US, Egypt, and Israel to promote a third-side enforcing mechanism for the peace agreement between the two. The presence of the US-led force allowed the sides to establish trust, and to have a reliable observer to oversee any developments in Sinai. When peace between the sides was new and fragile, the MFO’s mission stood as an anchor that kept Israel and Egypt calm and committed. If the US is to push for similar arrangements for resolving conflicts in the future, the parties will question how credible its offers could actually be, given the dissolution of such a mission.

It is true that peacekeeping forces have their flaws. They require the most precious resource of a nation — its own people — to be deployed to distant, sometimes chaotic areas. They also sometimes fail to prove effective. In Syria, the UNDOF peacekeeping force fled the Syrian-Israeli border area during the recent war. In Lebanon, UNIFIL failed to prevent Hezbollah tunnels from crossing Israel’s borders. But those examples highlight the fact that when a peacekeeping force does succeed in keeping peace, the worst thing to do would be to cut it back.

The US is still using peacekeeping forces as a foreign policy tool. In some negotiation rounds between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (although not the current one), it suggested deploying such forces to the Jordan Valley. When it criticized the failures of UNIFIL to enforce its mandate in Lebanon, the US didn’t call to dismiss it, but rather urged it to work more vigorously. If it wants peacekeeping forces to be effective, and if it ever wants to use them as an assurance for a party to compromise for peace, it should stand up to its commitments. A pullout of the peacekeeping force from Egypt signals the opposite.

The Middle East proves again and again that isolationism just does not work. The thought that pulling out forces will make problems disappear always fails: when you avoid the problems, they come knocking at your door anyway. While the wish to reduce forces deployed in foreign missions is understandable, it is bound to lead to graver consequences. To pull US forces out of the Sinai — one of the more successful peacekeeping missions — is a risky move. When an effort is succeeding, the answer is clear: the most beneficial thing to do would be to sustain it.

Ben Luria is an Israeli Rhodes scholar studying Public Policy in Oxford. He previously served as vice head of the Israel-US Strategic Planning Desk in the Israel Defense Forces. The views expressed are his own.

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