Egypt's army operation in Sinai "well coordinated' with US and Israel: Military source

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 21 Aug 2012

Israeli press criticises increased presence of Egyptian troops in the Sinai, however Operation Eagle was 'well coordinated' with both the US and Israel, says military source

Egyptian soldiers guarding the Egypt-Gaza borders (Photo: Reuters)

An Egyptian military source, Sunday, rebuffed what he qualified as "the noise that is coming out of the Israeli media" over the deployment of army troops in Sinai beyond the limitations stipulated in the 1979 Camp David Accords.

Speaking on a condition of anonymity, the source told Ahram Online that recent complaints voiced in the Israeli press are part of an anti-Egypt propaganda campaign that is orchestrated to intimidate President Mohamed Morsi.

Over the past few days, Israeli dailies have dwelt on comments from their military officials criticising Egypt for increasing armed forces presence across Sinai without securing approval from Israel first.

According to the Camp David peace treaty, Sinai is divided into three areas and in each of these areas Egypt is allowed a limited deployment of troops and arms.

Area C, the closest to Israeli borders with Egypt, is the most restricted.

Egypt can increase its military presence upon obtaining consent from the self-proclaimed Jewish state. This has been the case over the course of the past few years, as Cairo ran several operations ridding the area of militants as well as monitoring human and drugs trafficking.

Since the bloody attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards three weeks ago, Egyptian security forces have executed an ongoing operation to eliminate militant cells on the borders.

The operation, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said, falls within the scope of Egyptian "sovereignty over Sinai, all of Sinai."

According to the military source speaking to Ahram online, “Operation Eagle” is, however, "well coordinated with both the Americans and Israelis."

"The fact that contact between both sides has not been made known to the press does not mean it is not happening – actually it goes beyond mere information sharing and includes efforts to coordinate," the source said.

He added that these meetings are conducted on a daily basis by officers and "at times has included high ranking personnel, including Minister of Defence [Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi and his assistant General [Mohamed] El-Assar."

Minister El-Sisi who was appointed defence minister less than a week ago, arrived in Rafah, Monday, to personally follow up Operation Eagle.

The visit, the same military source said, is a clear indication that Egypt is "perfectly comfortable with what it is doing in Sinai and that it is determined to go on until the matter is finished."

"The matter" that this source talks about is not an easy one, according to Mohamed Abdel-Salam, strategic analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. Eliminating Islamist militant presence that has mushroomed in Sinai over the last few years is a tough mission that will take time.

The military source said that it would take at least another four weeks. "It is a multi-phased operation," he explained.

The attack on Egyptian troops in Sinai followed a run of complaints from Israel, including an unprecedented letter to the UN Security Council denouncing Egypt’s failing security efforts to control regional militants working with counterparts in Gaza in the peninsula.

According to both military personnel and political figures alike, the attack revealed the failure of the armed forces to properly control Sinai. "Clearly it was a big embarrassment," the military source admitted.

This attack allowed Morsi, with the reported consent of the US and the support of certain quarters within the military, to retire Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, minister of defence for over 20 years. This ended the duality of power that was implicitly shared between Morsi as elected president and Tantawi as head of the military council that had been running the state since the January 25 Revolution toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The departure of Tantawi came at the end of several forced retirements of top military and intelligence officials, moves also initiated by the disastrous Sinai border attack.

However in a Washington Post article published Sunday, Dennis Ross, a former US Middle East envoy and head of a pro-Israel think-tank based in the US capital, criticised Morsi’s dealings in Sinai, adding it was part of his poor management of state affairs in general from economy to the rights of the Copts. Ross called on Washington to act to fix Morsi's policies on the restive region.

"This article feels suspicious because it reveals, as I think, an attempt to discredit the Egyptian efforts to eliminate the presence of Islamist militants in Sinai," said Abdel-Salam. "It is very clear that Israel and some of the country’s supporters in Washington are not content with the fact that Egypt is putting its feet on the ground in Sinai."

Fixing security in the peninsula, Abdel-Salam said, would deny Israel and its lobby in Washington a useful card they use against Egypt in Congress and with the administration.

"Every now and then (during the last few years of Mubarak's rule) someone from Washington would complain about the situation in Sinai and say that the military and economic assistance (that Egypt receives from the US as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel) would be negatively affected if Sinai is not fixed," Abdel-Salam added.

Egyptian diplomatic sources who have served in Washington and other western capitals say that during the past few months Israel has complained that Egypt is failing to request permission to increase its deployment of arms and officers in Sinai, to curb Islamist militant and traffickers’ activities in the region.

"Today, they are complaining that Egypt is actually using this green-light; basically Israel is complaining about Sinai one way or the other," commented one Egyptian diplomat.

According to the military source, once Operation Eagle is done, Egypt will return its deployment level to that outlined in the peace treaty with Israel. However, Egypt may well upgrade its intelligence functions in the region.

Would this involve a re-negotiation of Camp David Accords to allow for a permanent increase of troops in the region? “Possibly,” the military source answered.

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