US reviewing scale of its peacekeeping mission in Sinai

Robert Burns - Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is considering ways it could automate aspects of its peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula, possibly reducing the number of troops deployed to an area struggling with the rise of an Islamic State group faction, officials said yesterday.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently notified officials in Israel and Egypt that the US is reviewing its role in the Multinational Force and Observers, or MFO, which monitors compliance with the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Davis said the US has about 700 troops there.

Davis said the US has signaled its desire to discuss the mission with Egypt and Israel but is not considering withdrawing entirely. He said the mission has changed very little over the decades, even as new military technologies have come into use that could automate some aspects.

Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, called the US review "part of an ongoing effort ... to look at how to modernize" the observer mission by using technology or improving efficiency.

"Whether and how significant a force reduction that will entail I can't speak to at this point in time," Toner said. But he added: "In no way does it speak to a lessening in our commitment to the objective of the MFO mission."

Last year, the US strengthened its presence in the Sinai with dozens of additional troops and support equipment to improve protection for the force after a roadside bomb attack that wounded four US soldiers.

Sinai has been plagued for years by an insurgency that escalated after the 2013 military overthrow of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi amid mass protests against him. A Sinai-based IS affiliate has targeted Egyptian troops in Sinai and claimed responsibility for the Oct. 31 downing of a Russian airliner that killed 224 people.

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