Sinai is a battle of localities, not military might. This should have been painfully clear the moment Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. After all, the most dangerous aspect of an insurgency isn’t its violence or sophistication, but its ability to humble militaries.
The Egyptian army’s strategy of aerial bombardment, mass evacuations and buffer zones is unlikely to prove successful. This strategy hasn’t succeeded for the United States’ offensive against Al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Taliban in Pakistan. This strategy is now widely viewed by the international community as ineffective at eliminating ISIS from Iraq. It would be devastating and costly to think that Egypt is an exception to the norm.
ISIS is an institution, not a group. Their ability to gain, and effectively control, local support is more important to them than their military capabilities. They know that one comes with the other. In Sinai, it’s been reported that they hand out food, provide public services and pay considerable salaries. In return, the peninsula is now a good source of new recruits, tribal networks and, in some cases, protection.
Through appealing to existing grievances of the Sinai population towards the Egyptian government, ISIS cements its own popularity and ensures its survival. It understands the laws of asymmetrical warfare, that air superiority never trumps allegiances on the ground. Plus, you can always count on a central government to mishandle a governate it is already mishandling.
What we see in Sinai today is comparable to the insurgencies found in Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan. In each case, the lack of support from the local population, and the insurgents’ ability to gain favor through services or propaganda, is widely seen as a key factor in the failure of the government campaign. Aerial bombardments, as precise and perfect as they are, are never precise or irreproachable enough to not be used as propaganda by ISIS, Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
Sinai is different from these examples in that there is no menacing foreign power (the United States) or the vacuum of a civil war that invites the insurgency. But this only eerily demonstrates what little ISIS needs to make a stronghold out of a patch of desert and an unhappy people.
A different strategy for this problem could come from the experience of the Iraqi army. ISIS quickly took over Iraqi territory in 2014 in no small part because it won the favor of Sunni tribes, marginalized by Baghdad. When it became clear that coalition airstrikes were not the solution, the government realized it needed to make right with the tribes. It wasn’t until chief Sunni tribes changed their allegiances and fought along side the Iraqi army that the tides start to change for ISIS on the battlefield.
The most recent ISIS losses in the Anbar province this past week demonstrate this point. Also, they finally found an effective use for all those wonderful airstrikes: use it as tactical support for the newly allied Sunni tribes on the ground, not as the main strategy.
What deeply surprises me is that the Egyptian army has displayed a public relations prowess in the past. In the aftermath of the June 30 revolution, the military demonstrated an impressive ability to sway public opinion in its favor and leverage soft power. I assumed this indicated a refined appreciation among military higher-ups for asymmetrical strategies. I expected the military to find more operational importance in allegiances on the ground than simply handing out EGP 500 million in compensation to evacuated families.
The Egyptian army needs to drastically change the actors of this operation. Like the Iraqi example, it needs to inspire in Sinai residents that this is a fight to take back their land and then enlist them to that purpose. Have them fight side by side the Egyptian military, on the ground. Design it as a war of Sinai tribes rising up against ISIS, because they are empowered and supported by the Egyptian army, and not the other way around.
Some fear that this strategy will give validation to unruly militias, threatening Egypt’s sovereignty over Sinai. ISIS has already given them that validation; we are clear past this point.
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