Sinai update

All due respect to Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, et al, the most volatile situation in the Middle East right now is in the Sinai and its vicinity. The more that’s learned about Wednesday’s attack against the town of Sheik Zuwayd in northern Sinai by ISIS’s Wilayat Sinai group, the more disturbing it seems:

The attack has worried many on the peninsula, where the group — formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, until it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant last year — has waged a low-level insurgency of sporadic hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings since at least 2011. But Wednesday’s assault suggested an evolution of the group’s anti-government campaign: For the first time, it displayed tactics that closely resembled those of the organization to which it has pledged allegiance.

Just as ISIL has done in numerous assaults on towns in Syria and Iraq, the Sinai insurgents first set off a string of coordinated car bombs, simultaneously trapping police officers and soldiers in the town by booby-trapping roads. In a significant departure from the isolated potshots the Sinai fighters have taken at security targets for years, “they actually tried to take a town and control territory, which they’ve never done before,” said Patrick Skinner, an analyst at the Soufan Group, a security firm. “It shows a shift, that the group is more true to the ISIS name than we may have thought,” he said, using an alternative acronym for ISIL. “They’re learning tactics,” which may even suggest more direct communication with ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

That last part is total speculation, but whether Wilayat Sinai is in closer contact with its parent organization or has just started copying their tactics of its own volition, this is a worrisome change. We’ve seen in Iraq how effective suicide bombings can be in softening up a defender, and while Egypt’s army is in better shape than Iraq’s, all it takes is one successful attack to set off a wave of panic, retreat, etc.

Predictably, Egypt’s President for Life Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is making his problems worse by using this security crisis in Sinai to go after the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. The Brotherhood has nothing to do with Wilayat Sinai, but it is Sisi’s real political opponent, so he has everything to gain by conflating them and ISIS under one “terrorist” category. Sisi signed into law a new counter-terrorism measure that “expedites criminal sentences,” so I guess now his judiciary can just execute convicts right there in the courtroom or something. Meanwhile, on Wednesday Egyptian police raided an apartment belonging to the Brotherhood and killed 13 members of its leadership, prompting calls for “an uprising” from the outlawed Islamist group. So instead of, I don’t know, doing something about the lousy socioeconomic conditions in the Sinai that allow Wilayat Sinai to thrive there, or even taking direct military action against Wilayat Sinai, Sisi appears to be kind of happy to let Sinai burn so that he can justify increased repression against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Not only does chaos in the Sinai threatens to cause much wider chaos throughout Egypt, but it also threatens Gaza and, therefore, Israel. ISIS hasn’t made too much noise about Israel since it first started swallowing up big chunks of the Middle East, but on Tuesday they released a video declaring their intention to oust Hamas in Gaza and “uproot the state of the Jews.” Israel has in the past accused Hamas of collaborating with elements of ISIS inside Gaza, but the Israeli government has as much to gain from conflating Hamas and ISIS as Sisi has conflating ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, so who knows? At any rate it seems like the collaboration, if there ever was one, may be over. There are some signs that Hamas’s public support is at an ebb, so they may be vulnerable, though there’s yet to be any significant, visible ISIS sympathy among the Palestinians, whose cause has always been more nationalistic than religious. Increasing ISIS strength in Sinai would only help it project into Gaza, which may explain why the IDF is reportedly prepared to OK any increase in Egyptian military presence in Sinai. Under the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, Israel and Egypt must approve any buildup of troops by the other country in their border region, so that Israeli approval is necessary for any major Egyptian operation there.

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