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Though the Egyptian military deployment into the Sinai Peninsula includes a significant amount of firepower, the sheer size of the rugged terrain, as well as the number of hostile elements in the region, will severely restrict the military's efforts to suppress Sinai militancy. Unrest in Sinai had been climbing gradually, but the military's removal of President Mohammed Morsi on July 3 sparked a new wave of violence, with attacks occurring daily against Egyptian police and military targets. The military responded by sending armour, combat helicopters and personnel into the region. Ultimately, the deployment will not have much of a long-term impact on militancy there unless it is maintained indefinitely or the forces are increased significantly.
Reports indicate that the Egyptian military, with Israel's consent, bolstered its military presence in the peninsula above the restrictions in the 1979 peace accords. There are currently around 11 infantry battalions and at least one tank battalion in Sinai, and other reports indicate that more tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers have been shuttled into the region. There are also combat helicopters operating in support of ground operations.
One of the two most recently deployed infantry battalions is being moved to El
Arish. Conflicting reports place the other battalion in Sharm el-Sheikh or Rafah.
In early July, multiple tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting
vehicles were reported to be operating at the border of Gaza and Sinai. The
picture that is developing is of a concentration of forces primarily around El
Arish and Rafah.
The amount of firepower deployed is among the most significant in these specific
zones of the Sinai Peninsula since 1979. Sinai is demarcated into specific zones,
each of which is permitted a specific allocation of forces under the watchful eye
of a multinational peacekeeping force. Egypt and Israel have had little choice but
to override these limits over the past three years as security incidents have
steadily increased in number and intensity, including attacks across Israel's
southern border and deadly ambushes on Egyptian police, border patrols and the
military. To be sure, for more than a decade Sinai has been a chaotic place,
replete with intermittent kidnappings, rocket attacks and pipeline bombings, but
the pace and severity has become more acute recently.
In August 2012, militants ambushed and killed 16 Egyptian soldiers before stealing
an armored personnel carrier, which they used to ram through the newly constructed
Israeli border fence in an effort to conduct a complex suicide attack. An Israel
Defense Forces helicopter was able to engage and destroy the vehicle. In response
to this incident, Egypt was allowed to deploy several thousand infantry, hundreds
of armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles and around two
battalions of main battle tanks (similar in size and makeup to what we are seeing
currently). Several weeks of operations were conducted against militants in the
area. It is not entirely clear but it seems that most of these forces were
withdrawn after the security operation was completed last year.
At the heart of the cooperation between the militaries of Egypt and Israel is the
need to preserve the strategic truce in place since 1979. Egypt's security
interests include protecting the free flow of commerce through the Suez Canal,
keeping the various energy pipelines from being disrupted and preventing further
kidnappings and extortions. But most important, it wants to limit logistical flows
to Palestinian groups and keep militant attacks on Israel to a minimum so that
Israel will not take unilateral action in Sinai and threaten Egypt's sovereignty.
Israel desires a quiet southern border so it can concentrate on the many other
threats it faces on its other borders, such as the Syrian civil war to the north
and the always volatile Gaza Strip.
Gaza in particular complicates the Sinai security situation. The Israeli security
perimeter and naval blockade effectively limit Gaza's logistics to its southern
border with Sinai. While the Rafah crossing itself is heavily monitored and
screened, smuggling tunnels beneath the border have served as the critical supply
route for all of Gaza. Militants have traveled both ways through these tunnels,
and while they initially conducted attacks mostly in southern Israel, the efforts
of Egyptian forces to interdict the militants have made Egypt a target as well.
Egyptian and Israeli officials have on several occasions voiced frustration over
what they describe as Hamas' lackluster response to the flow of weapons and
militants into Sinai. Hamas has taken action against some groups but has focused
more on controlling threats to its power than assisting surrounding governments.
In the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense in late 2012, Israel and the Egyptian
military could not follow through on pledges to keep the Rafah border crossing
open due to high militant activity in Sinai. Hamas was believed to be using the
militant threat through the region as leverage in its negotiations with the
Egyptian military and Israel. The Morsi government sanctioned some smaller
operations to destroy some tunnels and root out some militants, but the Egyptian
military restrained itself from conducting full-scale operations while the
government tried negotiations with the various parties in the peninsula. The
Muslim Brotherhood also did not want to be overaggressive and risk straining its
relationship with Hamas. When domestic unrest captured Cairo's attention, these
talks stalled and Sinai militancy began to escalate again, further frustrating the
A Pre-Planned Assault
The timing, pace and scale of the military buildup in Sinai indicates that an
operation had been planned for some time. It also appears that while the Muslim
Brotherhood and Hamas are still trying to adjust to the new political reality in
Cairo, the military is using the opportunity to conduct more thorough operations
One of the Egyptian military's interesting moves was the decision to deploy
personnel and armor at the Gaza border just before Morsi's removal. (Reports
suggest that as many as 50 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel
carriers, as well as at least one battalion of troops, were deployed.) It seems
the Egyptian command anticipated the potential for Gaza militants to respond
negatively to Morsi's ouster and positioned forces in a way that they could not
only threaten to completely sever the militants' important logistics line but also
block militants from flowing back into Sinai. The current size of the Egyptian
force in Sinai and the complete lack of movement by Israel Defense Forces suggest
that Egypt has no intent to directly engage Gaza or enter its territory.
Considering the similarities between the latest deployment and last year's force,
it is likely that the purposes are the same. Egypt's military is taking advantage
of the recent political chaos to pursue its decided objective of bringing Sinai
militancy back to tolerable levels. Though the deployed force seems large, the
Sinai Peninsula is vast and rugged. The units will have to disperse into several
smaller units to cover the entirety of the terrain and be effective in rooting out
small militant cells.
The militants' preferred tactics will likely be ambushes and improvised explosive
devices, the effects of which will be somewhat mitigated by the use of armored
vehicles. Infantry and armor will likely work in conjunction to sweep through the
territory, while airpower will be available when targets have been flushed out and
identified. Militants in the region have also recently shown a propensity to
attack fixed installations with predominantly small arms and rocket-propelled
grenades. The abundance of armor will help protect against these types of attacks
and shore up defenses.
Like many conventional responses to guerrilla-type combat environments in
difficult terrain, the Egyptian military crackdown will probably have limited
effects and will only temporarily degrade or suppress militancy in the region. But
dynamics have shifted such that this type of security operation in Sinai will
become the norm. This operation is more about managing security than completely
eliminating the threat -- a decidedly unrealistic goal -- and the main players in
the region will have to adjust to the evolving security balance.