As the counter-terrorist Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 (COS 2018) continues to unfold, communiqués released by the military spokesman indicate the operation is picking up in pace and intensity. No official timeframe has been given for the operation and experts acknowledge that it is difficult to predict how long it could take.
One military observer told Al-Ahram Weekly: “The element of surprise that characterised the beginning of the operation may well be repeated when the end is declared. What is important is not the timing but whether the stated aims of the operation are realised. The operation will last as long as it takes to realise its aims.”
The first 10 days of action in the field have had considerable results, according to the military spokesman’s communiqués. The Air Force has struck 158 mobile and fixed targets and artillery forces struck 234 targets on days nine and 10. Sixty-seven terrorists were killed in direct clashes during raids on their lairs, including three individuals on security agencies’ most wanted lists.
Video footage published by the military spokesman on social networking sites shows how direct confrontations are carried out in residential areas that have been cleared of civilian inhabitants.
In the course of operations military engineers disabled 306 explosive devices placed in the path of the Armed Forces, including 10 anti-tank mines. Combing operations uncovered 20 caves, one of which was being used as an explosives manufacturing lab, three communications centres including a message dispatching base, and 909 hideouts and weapons depots.
In addition, 60 vehicles and 242 motorcycles used by terrorists were either destroyed or confiscated and 1,728 people have been arrested, some suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks, others charged with providing logistical support for such attacks and some in connection with criminal investigations.
The Armed Forces also destroyed two tunnels and 35 escape holes used by terrorists during military actions.
The army has reported two soldiers and an officer killed during operations.
Naval manoeuvres proceeded in tandem with aerial and ground actions. During manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean the navy fired several missiles which military expert General Mohamed Qashqoush says were intended to send the message to Turkey that Egypt has the resources and capability to defend and protect the Zohr natural gas field and its other offshore economic interests.
Qashqoush added that it had become necessary to deliver a message to Turkey not only because of the way Turkish vessels had been harassing exploratory missions in the Mediterranean but because of Ankara’s ambitions to surround Egypt from the south, beginning with the establishment of Turkish military facilities at Suakin.
Turkish and Sudanese officials claimed Turkey was only interested in restoring antiquity sites on the Red Sea island off the Sudanese coast but, as Qashqoush points out, if this was indeed the case why did Ankara not turn to UNESCO? In all events, Khartoum appears to have backed out of the Suakin deal with Turkey.
The navy has also deployed vessels along the northern coast of Sinai. Military experts describe this as part of an encirclement to prevent terrorist elements from infiltrating Sinai and to block their seaward flight.
According to Brigadier General Walid Atteya, military operations representative for the navy, a naval formation supported by a helicopter carrier carrying special forces and air defence units was deployed to confront terrorist elements and secure maritime routes, including the northern entrance to the Suez Canal.
As part of the operation to secure the coast from Port Said to Rafah special forces staged a marine landing in order to comb coastal areas for terrorist elements. Atteya stressed the navy was undertaking such tasks “in close collaboration with the Air Force, border patrols and other military units”.
In a related development the army announced the beginning of Cleopatra 2018, a joint Egyptian-French naval manoeuvre. Taking place from 20 to 23 February, the exercises are part of the army’s annual plan for joint exercises with forces from friendly and allied nations.
This year the exercises are being carried out alongside the navy’s assigned missions within the framework of COS 2018 and include a range of activities and drills in the area of the Red Sea covered by Egypt’s Southern Fleet Sea.
Officials describe Cleopatra 2018 as a manifestation of the close military cooperation between Egypt and France.
Meeting with military reporters, General Yasser Abdel-Aziz, representative of the Military Operations Authority, stressed that the Armed Forces General Command had set out strict operational rules for COS 2018. They include complete adherence to commands issued by the president in his capacity as commander of the Armed Forces.
In performing their tasks the Armed Forces are required to uphold human rights, principles and standards. They must ensure the full protection of civilians during operations and adhere to internationally accepted rules of engagement.
Last week parliament’s defence and foreign affairs committees criticised an Amnesty International report claiming human rights abuses in Sinai. Kamal Amer, head of the National Defence and Security Committee, described the report as “tendentious and filled with mistakes and fabrications concerning military operations being carried out by the Armed Forces against terrorism”.
Salah Salem, a member of the National Council for Human Rights, said: “The security forces absolutely do not violate the rights of civilians. There has been a clear resolve in this regard since the outset of the operation.”
Meanwhile, in a meeting with MPs from North Sinai, Ibrahim Mahlab, assistant to the president for national projects, confirmed that development projects will begin in the peninsula as soon as military operations wind down and funding is already earmarked and ready.
MP Hossam Al-Refaai said MPs had submitted a list of urgent demands on behalf of the people of Sinai. They include a request to ease restrictions on the movement of students and patients from Sinai to Suez and to improve supplies of gasoline and other fuel.
“Fuel shortages are causing severe strain on residents in cities like Arish,” Al-Refaai said. Some sources attribute the shortages to efforts to prevent terrorists from accessing fuel.
Last week General Commander of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defence General Sidki Sobhi met with the head of US Central Command Joseph Votel in order to discuss COS 2018. Votel reaffirmed his country’s support for Egypt in its war against terrorism and praised the successes achieved in the battle in Sinai.
In another security-related development Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri laid out a five-point message in his address to last week’s Munich security conference. He stressed that countries which facilitate the movement of foreign militants within and to the region must be brought to account; he contended it was false to compare the Islamic State (IS) to the era of the early Islamic Caliphate which lit the path to civilisation for the whole of humanity, insisting IS can only be described as a terrorist organisation; he cautioned against viewing the military defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq as the end of the fight against terrorism rather than an important step towards eliminating the threat terrorist organisations pose, adding that eliminating the threat at its roots requires an effective and resolute drive on both the national and international levels.
Shoukri underscored the need to double counter-terrorism efforts at the international level, especially when it comes to halting channels of funding, and pointed out that one of the weak points in the international community’s efforts to address the threat of terrorism was the loose and ambiguous definitions of terrorism. In this framework, he criticised the tendency to use “freedom of expression” to defend those who incite violence and hatred.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly