Alumni POV: Doves among wolves
The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) is the most successful peacekeeping organization in existence. Since July 2018, I have been deployed to Sharm El Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt with the MFO on a year-long peacekeeping mission known as Operation CALUMET. I have found that, lamentably, due in no small part to its success, few Canadians are even aware that their men and women in uniform are serving on this mission.
The MFO was created in 1982 to supervise adherence to the protocols of the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty, which marks its 40th anniversary today. The result has been nearly four decades of unprecedented peace between two nations that have long been at each other’s throats. Much of this success is due to the MFO who facilitates dialogue between the treaty partners and conducts missions to observe, verify and report on potential violations of the protocols of the Treaty.
The MFO is an independent joint, multinational, military-civilian peacekeeping force. It does not fall under a UN mandate, therefore instead of working under the blue banner of the UN, it flies the orange flag of the MFO; instead of sporting the well-known robin’s-egg blue helmet of UN Peacekeepers, its members wear a terra cotta-coloured beret. It consists of a 1400-strong military component drawn from 12 troop contributing nations. The Canadian contingent, named Task Force El Gorah consists of 65 Canadian Armed Forces personnel from all military environments and a broad spectrum of trades.
Canadian personnel coordinate air traffic, plan and execute force training, facilitate dialogue between treaty partners, provide military police duties and a myriad of other duties within the Force. Canada has been a consistent troop-contributor to the MFO since 1985, and Canadian members routinely fill influential positions in the Force, even commanding it from time to time. At present, Canadian officers fill important positions such as the Chief of Liaison, the Provost Marshall, the Force Information Management Officer, and the Chief of Training.
The MFO is something of an anachronism. Classic peacekeeping operations, wherein two nations have agreed to a peace that’s monitored by an intervening peacekeeping force, is what Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson envisioned when he proposed the use of soldiers as peacekeepers in 1956. However, as Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan remarked in 2016, such missions are no longer the norm. Modern peace support operations usually stabilize failed and failing states and work through intra-national rather than international conflict. The MFO is a long-standing and very successful peacekeeping mission in the Pearsonian mould, but the world has changed around it, making its operating environment extremely challenging.
In the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Crisis, some of the disaffected populace in northern Sinai took arms against the Egyptian government resulting in a violent insurgency that continues to this day. The situation worsened in 2014 when the insurgents swore allegiance to the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorist organization, rebranding themselves Wilayat Sinai – the Province of Sinai within the so-called Islamic State.
Thus, we find doves among wolves. For the last four years the Egyptian Armed Forces have been waging a counterinsurgency fight against Wilayat Sinai, and often the MFO finds itself caught in between, although never directly targeted to date. As peacekeepers, the MFO maintains its impartiality; however, impartiality doesn’t stop stray bullets or artillery rounds.
Sadly, the insurgency has taken its toll. In September 2015, six MFO members were injured when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device (IED) emplaced by insurgents to target Egyptian forces. More recently, a rocket attack targeting an Egyptian Army battle position overshot and landed only 250 meters from the perimeter of one of the Force’s encampments. Fortunately, no injuries or damage resulted.
The persistent IED threat has impacted the Force’s freedom of movement, which is a critical requirement to monitor treaty protocols. This has been mitigated by using armoured vehicles, replacing human observation posts with remote camera sites, and conducting movement by air, rather than ground. In the end, the greatest asset to the Force is its people, and notwithstanding these challenges, the men and women of the MFO continue to execute their duties with grit, determination and professionalism.
This is my first peacekeeping assignment. My first overseas deployment was in 2002 to conduct combat operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Peacekeeping in the Sinai is a fundamentally different mission, but equally complex. There is no enemy and problems cannot be solved with military action – only through dialogue, trust and patience. This has required mental flexibility to adapt to: something to which Canadian Forces members have proven proficient.
As I write this, the tourist economy of Sharm El Sheikh is booming. Tourists flock from Europe, Metropolitan Egypt and Russia to enjoy the ample beaches, plentiful resorts and local culture. Local inhabitants are employed, and infrastructure is constantly improving. None of this would be possible without the enduring peace the 1979 Treaty provides, and which the MFO ensures daily.
Canadians can be rightly proud of the tremendous work their soldiers, sailors and air force personnel are doing under very trying circumstances. The peacekeeping operation in the Sinai region of Egypt is both an anachronism and an anomaly, but most of all, it is successful.
Lieutenant-Colonel David Grebstad [BA/96] is currently deployed to the Sinai region with the MFO. He fills the roles of Chief of Combined and Joint Training for the Force, and Deputy Commander of the Canadian Contingent – Task Force El Gorah.