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Pentagon pushes Egypt to fight counterinsurgency campaign in Sinai

The Pentagon used a visit by Egypt’s defense minister to push the US ally into a counterinsurgency-style approach to the fight against terror groups in the Sinai desert.
Military forces are seen in North Sinai, Egypt, December 1, 2017. Picture taken December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RC158CDC6DE0

In his first meeting with a Middle East nation since his confirmation as defense secretary, Mark Esper pressed his Egyptian counterpart this week to wage a counterinsurgency-style fight in the Sinai Peninsula.

“During his visit, I spoke to [Defense] Minister [Mohammad] Zaki extensively about their efforts in Sinai and it’s clear we share the importance of a population-centric approach, even if it takes longer to be successful,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Mick Mulroy said in a statement provided exclusively to Al-Monitor.

The statement is a sign of the Pentagon's optimism about the relationship, even as the fight in the desert against the Islamic State and other groups has frustrated lawmakers, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking Democrat on the upper chamber’s powerful appropriations panel. Leahy has held up $105 million in US military aid over US access to Sinai and other issues since 2018.

The pressure has increased on both sides of Capitol Hill. In May, the House conditioned $260 million of Egypt’s military assistance on human rights and democracy in its annual foreign aid spending bill.

Yet US observation in the area still faces challenges. A military official who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said transit between US-owned outposts in southern and northern Sinai, where the bulk of the fight is taking place, is often bogged down by bureaucratic troubles and disputes over the threat posed by insurgent groups.

Despite the Pentagon’s efforts to improve the relationship, experts told Al-Monitor that Egypt has since 2016 mostly blocked the US military from accessing Sinai to make sure US weapons aren’t used to commit human rights violations, as called for under US aid law. Human Rights Watch reported in May that Egyptian forces were involved in 14 cases of extrajudicial killings in northern Sinai in recent years, and forcibly disappeared 39 people.

During a December visit to review counterterrorism efforts in Sinai, Mulroy observed desalinization efforts and other work to restore economic opportunities, speaking with top generals and less senior officials.

The fight in Sinai forms part of the classified Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy, which calls on the Department of Defense to use foreign internal defense principles, advise and assist tactics, and influence operations to push back against great power competitors such as Russia and China. The annex was spearheaded by Owen West, the recently departed assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.

Meanwhile, the United States closed a sale with Egypt during Zaki’s visit, providing $554 million in technical support to the Egyptian navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, fast missile crafts and mine hunters.

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