Middle East

Egypt’s navy to lead new Red Sea maritime task force

Egypt will assume leadership of a new multinational task force patrolling the waters of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in November, the Pentagon confirmed on Monday.

The head of all US forces in the Middle East, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, met with top Egyptian military officials in Cairo and lauded their plans to take the helm of the new Combined Task Force 153.

“I greatly value Egypt’s leadership role in the region,” Kurilla said in a statement following the meeting.

“Egypt has long served a critical role in stability across the region and CENTCOM is committed to this strategic partnership,” Kurilla said.

Why it matters: Task Force 153 was established by the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in April in a bid to combat smuggling and other illicit activities in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandab and the waters off Yemen.

It is the fourth such grouping under the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a multinational maritime security cooperative first set up by the United States to patrol Middle Eastern waters in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Rear Adm. Bradly Cooper, the commander of US Navy forces in the Middle East, told reporters earlier this year that the creation of TF-153 allows the CMF to more efficiently patrol the region’s waterways. Fifth Fleet also aims to fill gaps in coverage with an expected fleet of up to 100 unmanned maritime drones by next summer.

Cooper declined to say at the time whether TF-153 would be aimed at contesting Iran-sponsored activities in the area, but the task force’s specific geographic focus suggests as much.

The Gulf of Aden has been a key transit route for unmarked boats smuggling missiles and small arms to Yemen’s Houthi rebels from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iranian drone and missile technology been used in repeated Houthi attacks into Saudi Arabia in recent years, as well as at least two known drone attacks on United Arab Emirates. US Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking told Arab News in an interview today that Iran has encouraged the Houthis to launch such attacks.

The Yemeni rebels have also launched exploding remote-controlled boats against Saudi targets in the Red Sea. The US and its allies have accused Iran of being behind a spate of attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the region since the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran in 2015.

Israel’s defense chief Benny Gantz warned during a July forum in Athens that Iran’s Navy was solidifying its presence in the Red Sea. An Israeli submarine reportedly traversed the Suez Canal with Egyptian assistance in a show of force against Iran in December 2020.

Egypt joined the Combined Maritime Forces last year for the first time, becoming the collective’s 34th member. The move earned high praise from leadership of the US’ Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.

What’s next: An effort is gearing up in Congress to force the Biden administration to withhold $300 million in this year’s annual military aid package to Cairo over the Abdel Fatah al-Sisi government’s widespread human rights abuses, among them sham trials and extrajudicial executions of citizens.

Last year the Biden administration withheld only $130 million of Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion package after Cairo failed to meet a list of human rights benchmarks communicated privately by Washington.

US Senator Chris Murphy took to the Senate floor on Monday to urge Biden to live up to his promises of a human rights-based foreign policy this time around. “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’” Biden tweeted on the campaign trail in July 2020, in reference to an ostensible term of endearment uttered by his predecessor about Sisi one year prior.

Since assuming command of CENTCOM in April, Kurilla has advocated robust US support for Egypt’s military, including completion of years-long plans to sell Cairo F-15 fighter jets.

During his stop in Cairo this week, Kurilla “pledged to work with elements of the US government to expedite the bureaucratic and cumbersome foreign military sales [FMS] process with parters in the Middle East.”

Kurilla’s predecessor, retired Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, called the F-15 sale approval process “a long, hard slog” in a hearing with lawmakers last year, but Cairo is thought to have scrapped its plans to purchase Russian Su-35 fighters in accordance with its agreement with Washington.

Know more: Read Jared Szuba’s report on the pending US sale of F-15s to Cairo.

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