DEBKAfile Exclusive Analysis April 3, 2017, 8:51 AM (GMT+02:00)
US President Donald Trump’s first face to face with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi at the White House Monday, April 3, focuses on four main topics, debkafile reports: The fight against Islamist State terror rampant in Egyptian Sinai and neighboring Libya; topping up US military assistance to Cairo, aid for easing Egypt’s dire economic straits and, finally, the effort to bolster normal relations between the Arab world (including the Palestinians) and Israel.
From the moment he assumed the Egyptian presidency in June 2014, El-Sisi has waged a never-ending war on Islamist terror against Ansar Beit-al Maqdis, which later pledged alliance to the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The Egyptian army has so far been worsted. The Egyptian president is not deaf to the criticism of the Second and Third Armies’ failure to overcome a few thousand armed men, even though they can at a moment’s notice raise several thousand more fighters from the Bedouin tribes of Sinai. US intelligence has rated the Egyptian forces as slow-moving and unwieldy; but for limited forays, its contingents preferring to sit safely in their barracks rather than risk going out and pursuing the enemy across the Peninsula.
Shortly before President El-Sisi’s trip to Washington, the Egyptian air force conducted intense bombardments of ISIS concentrations around the northern town of El Arish, killing at least 14 terrorists, nabbing 22 and seizing large caches of roadside bombs. But they too long delayed bearding the Islamists in their main stronghold atop Mount Jabal Hala in central Sinai. ISIS is therefore free to move around the territory and strike at will, the while expanding its operations into Egypt proper.
The weekend air strikes came after months in which ISIS overran sections of El Arish, Sinai’s biggest town (pop: 100,000). Their grip is such that Egyptian forces no longer dared venture into those lawless neighborhoods, especially at night. Earlier this year, terrible persecution including executions forced the few thousand indigenous Christians, most of them Copts, to flee their homes in El Arish. Egyptian forces proved unequal to safeguarding the US-led international observer force (MFO) monitoring the 1972 Egyptian-Israel peace treaty at a nearby station.
American military aid to Egypt stands today at $1.3bn a year. Even though the US president means to slash foreign aid programs, he may make an exception in this case and expand military assistance - possibly in the coin of advanced military hardware, given the country’s unending frontline battle against Islamist terror.
Its presence in El Arish, 130km from the Egyptian-Israeli border, plants the peril on the doorsteps of Egypt’s neighbors as well: Northern Sinai borders on Israel, its northwestern district shares a border with the Gaza Strip, abutting in the east on Jordan and in the southwest on Libya. The cities of western Sinai sit on the banks of the Suez Canal.
The Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate is closely allied with Salafi organizations in the Gaza Strip and works hand in glove with its Palestinian Hamas rulers, especially in the lucrative arms-smuggling business.
Al-Baghdadi last year posted a group of Iraqi officers in his service to the Sinai contingent. They travelled through southern Jordan to reach the peninsula. The Islamist cells in Libya have moreover made ISIS-held turf in Sinai their safe highway for traveling undetected to their other strongholds across the Middle East.
To stamp out this sprawling, multi-branched menace, the Trump administration needs to bring Egypt, Jordan and Israel into a coalition for a sustained, common campaign.
The Obama administration, which boycotted President El-Sisi for persecuting Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, tried unsuccessfully to build Turkey, Egypt and Israel into a counterterrorism pact. The Trump administration, for which the Brotherhood is anathema, has a better chance. But first, relations between the Arab world and Israel need to be placed on a regular footing. Some groundwork already exists in the informal bilateral military ties Egypt and Jordan maintain with Israel. debkafile’s military sources have revealed in past reports the limited give-and-take relations for fighting terror Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi maintain with Israel.
The US President’s advisers recognize that before a broad, effective front against ISIS and Al Qaeda can be put together from these partial, often covert ties, progress is necessary towards normalizing relations between the Arab governments and the Jewish state, including the Israeli-Palestinian track.
Trump will certainly want to hear what role his Egyptian guest is willing to take for bringing this process forward. He will ask his next Middle East visitor, Jordan’s Abdullah II, the same question, when he arrives in Washington Tuesday. As for the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, he was promised an invitation to the White House this month, but not yet been given a date. He is clearly being left to wait until the senior players in the region have had their say. Our Washington sources report that President Trump aims to complete his plan for bringing together Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel on a new footing by September.