UK special forces have operated secretly in 19 countries since 2011 – including in Syria, Russia & Ukraine
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SAS and other British special forces have been involved in covert operations in 19 countries in the past dozen years, including in Nigeria, the Philippines and Russia, as well as in Syria, Ukraine and most recently Sudan, a study reveals.
The elite military units operate in secret, without ministers publicly confirming their activities. But a research group, Action on Armed Violence, has compiled a list of their activities since 2011 based on media leaks.
It paints a picture of members of the SAS, Special Boat Service and Special Reconnaissance Regiment, being repeatedly deployed by the prime minister and defence secretary to conduct high-risk missions, typically where the UK is not at war.
Special forces have been particularly active in Syria, with reports of them entering the country from 2012 to help rebel groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. They are also reported to have been sent in 2013 to identify military targets in advance of a bombing campaign that MPs ended up voting against.
But such was the obsession with secrecy that when one SAS member, Matt Tonroe, was killed by in Syria in 2018, he was officially described as a member of the Parachute regiment. It later emerged he was not killed by an improvised explosive device but by the accidental detonation of a grenade carried by his US colleague.
Fifty members of UK special forces were listed as being present in Ukraine earlier this year in leaked Pentagon papers, although Britain is not formally party to the conflict; by contrast, the numbers from the US and France were listed as 14 and 15, respectively. Their purpose, however, was not stated.
The authors of the report said that the extensive list of deployments came despite a lack of oversight. While convention dictates that MPs have to vote for a war, special forces can be deployed without Commons approval – and their actions are not subject to investigation by any parliamentary committee.
At one point, shortly after 38 people – including 30 Britons – were killed by a terrorist at a beach hotel in Tunisia in June 2015, it was reported that the SAS had been given “carte blanche” by David Cameron, who was then prime minister, to capture or kill Islamist leaders in the Middle East.
“The extensive deployment of Britain’s Special Forces in numerous countries over the past decade raises serious concerns about transparency and democratic oversight,” said Iain Overton, the executive director of AOAV. “The lack of parliamentary approval and retrospective reviews for these missions is deeply troubling.”
This March, however, a public inquiry began into allegations that the SAS were responsible for 54 summary killings in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, typically on night raids. Men were separated from their families and repeatedly shot dead after being said to have produced a weapon.
Special forces took part in the rescue of two dozen British diplomats and their families from Khartoum in April after the outbreak of fighting in Sudan, evacuating them to an airfield north of the capital, when they were at risk of coming under attack.
At the time, the Tory MP Ben Wallace, who is now defence secretary, praised the military effort involved. However, the Ministry of Defence said the operation involved members of the Parachute regiment, the Royal Marines and the RAF but it did not mention special forces.
Special forces frequently participate in hostage rescues as well as exfiltrations. A group of SBS commandos tried and failed to rescue a Briton and an Italian held by an Islamist group in Nigeria in 2012, but a couple held in the Philippines were successfully rescued in 2019 in a mission that UK special forces helped to plan, and for which it trained the country’s military.
The only deployment in Russia mentioned in the media dates back to 2014, when a tabloid newspaper reported that SAS soldiers were “on hand” to protect the security of British athletes at the winter Olympics in Sochi.
The full list of countries also includes Algeria, Estonia, France, Oman, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Cyprus, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. It was sent to the Ministry of Defence, although the ministry routinely says it does not comment on the activity of special forces.
An MoD spokesperson said: “It is the longstanding policy of successive governments not to comment on UK Special Forces.”
[Top image: An image obtained by the BBC in 2016 appears to show British special forces patrolling near a rebel army base close to the Syria-Iraq border© Photograph: BBC News]