Pentagon Jittery Over Security of Sinai Peacekeepers

U.S. Army Soldiers from 1-125 Infantry sling-loading supplies in the Sinai.
U.S. Army Soldiers from 1-125 Infantry sling-loading supplies in the Sinai.

The Obama administration is quietly reviewing the future of America’s three-decade deployment to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, fearful the lightly equipped peacekeepers could be targets of escalating Islamic State-inspired violence. Options range from beefing up their protection or even pulling them out altogether, officials told The Associated Press.

The American forces have helped marshal peace in the peninsula since Egypt’s 1979 historic peace treaty with Israel. Some 700 members of an Army battalion and logistics support unit are currently there. They mainly monitor and verify compliance, and have little offensive capability. Several other countries also provide personnel.

Armed primarily with light weapons, armored personnel carriers and similarly limited material, the forces lack the capacity to take on Islamic State or other terrorists across the sparsely populated, desert territory. As a result, officials said, the Obama administration has been conducting an “interagency review” of the U.S. posture in the Sinai.

The talks have included an examination of ways to bolster the safety of the Americans there, possibly by bringing in additional equipment to better secure positions, according to senior administration officials familiar with the discussions. But the debate also has encompassed the question of bringing the U.S. peacekeepers home, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the subject and demanded anonymity.

Although the Camp David Accords, which led to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, legally mandate the presence of the two American military units, the U.S. can remove them — at least temporarily — if they’re in imminent danger. Still, such action could have major political implications. One official said the U.S. does not currently believe there is an imminent threat facing the peacekeepers.

Islamic extremists may claim the U.S. withdrawal as a victory. Regional allies already wearied by a U.S.-led nuclear pact with Iran and America’s limited military engagement in Iraq and Syria could see any step away from the Sinai as further evidence that President Barack Obama wants out of the Middle East. And without the U.S. contingent, it is unlikely the Multinational Force and Observers, or MFO, would be able to sustain itself much longer.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. supports the role being played by the force and was working with Egypt’s government to address the danger to American and other soldiers.

Given America’s close relationships with both Egypt and Israel, one senior official said the U.S. would prefer not to make changes to its posture unilaterally.

An Israeli embassy spokesman in Washington said the force contributes significantly to “stability and security for the region.”

Egyptian officials didn’t immediately comment.

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