A prudent historical observation from wars involving insurgents and terrorists is that infantry, tanks and helicopters are not the best means to achieve victory or even a modicum of success within a short time frame. Insurgency and terrorist activity is increasing in the Sinai peninsula while the Egyptian counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist efforts do not appear to be achieving victory. Egypt is sending more and more of its forces into the Sinai peninsula reminiscent of an Afghanistan style campaign. Reminiscent of Afghanistan the escalation is drawing more foreign radical fighters. Israel needs to keep an eye open for it is unlikely that Egypt will win; it is likely that the Sinai will become militarized with more Egyptian forces; and it is likely that the Sinai will become more radicalized with more insurgents and terrorists.
The Sinai insurgency began in February 2011, after the Egyptian Arab Spring even though radical elements and terrorist have been known to exist in the Sinai for many years transferring weapons to Gaza through smuggling tunnels. Sinai has been the most lawless corner of Egypt since the ouster of Mubarak: police stations have been torched; security forces have been kicked out of tribal areas; shootings take place regularly on police and military outposts and convoys; the gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan has been bombed regularly; Israel has been infiltrated by stolen armored cars; and most recently hundreds of Salafist Bedouin, Muslim Brotherhood adherents and Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters from the Gaza Strip have joined forces to block northern Sinai’s key road arteries. In recent weeks the Islamists have been attacking Egyptian military and security targets at the rate of 30 strikes a day, traveling at speed between targets in minivans on which rocket launchers and heavy machine guns are mounted, or using motorbikes for raiders brandishing rocket-propelled grenades.
As a result Egypt has sought to pour troops into the Sinai peninsula. Israel has agreed to Egyptian requests, in accordance with the Camp David Accords, to allow Egypt to deploy attack helicopters and more troops in the Sinai. In the requests Egyptian security sources claim that over 2,000 Islamic militants reside in the Sinai region. Last week Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon approved an increase of Egyptian forces in the Sinai by two battalions: one at El-Arish in the north and one at Sharm al-Sheikh in the south. The additional forces mean that Egypt now has 11 infantry battalions deployed in the Sinai, as well as a tank battalion and assault helicopters.
Egypt is now in the progress of Operation Fattah 2 (Conquest 2); led by the commanders of Egypt’s Second and Third Armies. (General Ahmed Wasfi at El Arish and General Osama Askar in the central Sinai village of Nakhal). An armored force of 13 tanks has bolstered the Second Army. They have also sealed off the exit from the Gaza Strip through Rafah warning Hamas that the crossing will remain closed until the campaign ends. Israeli forces along the Egyptian and Gaza borders are on alert including an Iron Dome unit in Eilat; as are the 2,600 US Marines aboard two amphibious helicopter carriers anchored opposite the Red Sea shores and the Gulf of Suez. Three rockets fell on Israel on the eve of the operation.
Israel needs to be careful about this Egyptian militarization of the Sinai. Firstly because it is a prudent historical observation from wars involving insurgents and terrorists that infantry, tanks and helicopters are not the best means to achieve victory or even a modicum of success within a short time frame. Secondly because all is not sound with the Egyptian accounts of how these increased forces are being deployed and their successes. In August 2012 Egypt claimed that insurgents/terrorists were arrested and charged yet NPR’s Leila Fadel said that she could not find any evidence of the new Egyptian military campaign, when she went to villages where the fighting was said to have been the most intense.
In this weeks Operation, the Egyptian army has abstained so far from directly engaging its Islamist adversaries, it has been pulling back from one isolated observation post and position after another, retreating into clusters of fortified buildings and leaving the militants in full control. The Egyptian army appears only to be sending Apache gun ships out on surveillance and not attack missions. The images the Egyptian military has released showing bulldozers destroying the smuggling tunnels linking Sinai to the Gaza Strip are also misleading. They are not destroyed, only blocked.
Because the Egyptians have so far kept to a war of passive defense against the Islamists rampant in Sinai these groups may soon move out toward the Suez Canal and the main cities of Egypt coupled with an intensified radicalization of the Sinai. They may also attempt to infiltrate Israel to launch a major attack on a civilian or military target. Solving the cause and not the symptoms of Sinai’s problems is the solution. Egypt faces potential loss in it’s Afghanistan style war, even if it is successful in a few campaigns .
Dr Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication